The coronavirus pandemic is hard for everyone, to be sure.
But for a significant percentage of Americans, it also creates mental health concerns, from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even thoughts of suicide. We should count these as consequences of the pandemic, and try to understand and address them.
To get an idea of how widespread these issues are, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard Medical School, and Melbourne, Australia partnered with Utah company Qualtrics to issue online surveys to 5,412 randomly selected American adults in June. The survey was weighted to match the demographic characteristics of the American population, as determined by the 2010 Census. They removed surveys that showed an unusual response patterns, either in terms of browser attentiveness, speed of response, or were likely entered by a robot. In other words, they did the things you’d want to see in a well-administered survey.
The results were released last week. Here’s what they found.
The survey found that 26% of respondents had symptoms that indicate anxiety disorder, while 24% had symptoms that indicated depressive disorder. That’s way up from the numbers from June 2019, when 8% of Americans had anxiety symptoms, while only 7% had depressive symptoms.
Meanwhile, 13% of respondents said they had started or increased substance abuse to cope with pandemic-related stress. And 11% of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.
All in all, 41% of Americans had some sort of mental health symptom.
Gender, age and race
Men and women had pretty similar numbers in the study: about 32% of women had symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to 30% of men. But more men turned to substances (14% to 12%) and substantially more men considered suicide (13% to 9%).
I found the age split fascinating. Young people were about eight times more likely to experience mental health symptoms. Nearly a quarter of them turned to substances to deal with the emotions, compared to just 3% of the elderly. The same split could be seen in those who considered suicide.
White and Black people shared a similar prevalence of disorder symptoms, but Black people were nearly twice as likely to use or abuse substances or consider suicide. Asian people reported fewer symptoms than any other race, while Hispanics continue to be the most affected by the pandemic with the highest rate of symptoms, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
There weren’t substantial differences between urban and rural respondents in any category, by the way.
Wage and work
The study also broke down people’s responses by income level. Here, too, the trends were interesting: as people made more and more money, they became more insulated from anxiety or depression caused by the pandemic. On the other hand, people with higher incomes became more likely to use substances and think of suicide.
You see the same trends when you look at the responses broken down by educational attainment, which you might reasonably expect given the correlation between education and income.
I thought the breakdown by type of job was fascinating. People with jobs labeled essential were more likely to suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression than nonessential workers, 35% to 21%. In fact, those with essential jobs were even more likely to have those symptoms than those who were unemployed completely. Essential employees were 2.5 times more likely to begin using or abusing substances, and three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
The worst job to have wasn’t a job at all. Those who reported that they were responsible of taking care of an adult at home in some way during the pandemic had the highest prevalence of mental disorder symptoms, substance use and suicidal thoughts. These are staggering numbers, and as a society we need to focus on those who are giving help to those in need.
Experience with the pandemic
The most surprising result to me came when researchers asked about people’s personal experience with the pandemic. It turns out that people who don’t know someone who had a positive COVID-19 test were slightly more likely to be experiencing anxiety and depression than those who did. They were also significantly more likely to have thought about suicide. And the same was true when people were asked if they knew of someone who died of the disease.
It’s difficult to tease out what exactly is happening here. Remember, older people were statistically unlikely to experience these negative mental effects, so perhaps that just overrode the personal experience part of the pandemic.
There’s also well-documented research indicating that, in general, the mental impact of anxiety over something that has yet to happen is often worse than the mental impact of the actual occurrence of the event. We could be seeing those effects, too.
Given the results, you might wonder which part of the pandemic is more mentally taxing: the cases and deaths themselves, or the secondary effects of economic downturn and lockdown?
You might reasonably compare places that had strict lockdowns and those that stayed mostly open. Italy and Sweden are two such countries and 30% of Swedes said that they felt moderately or severely depressed, compared to 32% of Italians. Not a very big difference!
I also get this feeling when looking at the state-by-state data. The states that have the most anxiety and depression in the nation are usually the ones where the pandemic is hitting hardest that week, not where the government lockdowns are strictest.
It’s a little like the economic data we’ve analyzed so far: in general, people make decisions on their economic behavior based largely on how they feel about the coronavirus’ strength in their community at that time, not so much on how their governments respond to the virus. Our mental health responses aren’t intentional like our economic choices, but they seem to work in much the same way.
What should you do if you, or someone you love, is facing significant mental health consequences as the result of the pandemic? The CDC has set up a site with resources for that, including hotlines with people to talk to, tips and tricks on lowering stress levels, and more.
Technology has also significantly lowered the barriers to access therapy: apps like BetterHelp or TalkSpace link clients to professional therapists around the country for lower fees and safer visits than in-person therapy. Many apps and in-person therapists have options for low-income patients, or for those without health insurance. Help really is out there, even in a pandemic.
And that might be one silver lining to this new study: while it’s frightening how much mental health symptoms have skyrocketed during the pandemic, those people definitely aren’t as alone as they might think. There’s an understanding community to reach, even if communication is more difficult in this crazy version of the world.
With so many people going through so much, let’s not make life tougher for people. If there’s ever a time to be supportive, to be considerate, to be empathetic and to be kind — it’s right now.
Andy Larsen is a Salt Lake Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at email@example.com or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.