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Three-Fold Jump in Psychological Distress During COVID-19 Pandemic

June 11, 2020

More than 13% of US adults reported symptoms of serious psychological distress in April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, up from 3.9% in 2018, according to a findings published in a research letter online in JAMA. 

The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Civic Life and Public Health Survey polled 1468 adults from April 7 to April 13, 2020. Researchers, who did not mention COVID-19, measured respondents’ symptoms of serious psychological distress using the Kessler 6 Psychological Distress Scale, and compared results with an identical measure from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey. 

“The measure of serious psychological distress derived from the Kessler 6 scale has been shown to accurately predict serious mental illness,” researchers wrote, “suggesting acute distress during COVID-19 may transfer to longer-term psychiatric disorders.” 

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Overall, 13.6% of respondents reported serious psychological distress in April 2020, according to the study. Psychological distress was highest among young adults aged 18 to 29 years (24% in 2020 vs 3.7% in 2018), respondents with household incomes of less than $35,000 a year (19.3% vs 7.9%), and Hispanic adults (18.3% vs 4.4%).

Adults aged 55 years and older reported the lowest prevalence of serious psychological distress in this year’s survey, at 7.3%, researchers reported. 

Meanwhile, 13.8% of US adults reported “always” or “often” feeling lonely in the 2020 poll, just a slight bump up from 11% of adults in 2018, the study found. The finding suggests, researchers reasoned, that factors other than loneliness are driving COVID-19-era psychological distress.

“We need to prepare for higher rates of mental illness among US adults post-COVID,” said researcher Beth McGinty, PhD, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland. “It is especially important to identify mental illness treatment needs and connect people to services, with a focus on groups with high psychological distress including young adults, adults in low-income households, and Hispanics.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


McGinty EE, Presskreischer R, Han H, Barry CL. Psychological distress and loneliness reported by US adults in 2018 and April 2020. JAMA. 2020 June 3;[Epub ahead of print].

Survey finds large increase in psychological distress reported among US adults during the COVID-19 pandemic [press release]. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; June 3, 2020.

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