Study: America an emotional wreck after months of COVID-19

Study finds rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts way up

BOSTON — It is just a snapshot of America's mental health during the pandemic, but it contains troubling information, just the same. 

A new study, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), shows a sharp rise in recent, self-reported levels of anxiety and depression in the US -- and a big jump in those having suicidal thoughts. 

“Needless to say we are currently dealing with enormous stress -- the stress that we haven’t seen in generations,” said Maxim Lianski, MD, Chair of Psychiatry at Metrowest Medical Center in Framingham. “So, yes, it is not surprising at all that a lot of people -- 40% -- report symptoms that could be consistent with either depression or anxiety, and those symptoms, obviously, negatively affect their lifestyle.”

Of the more than 5,400 subjects who participated in the study’s online survey, about a third reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, 26% a stress or trauma disorder related to the pandemic, more than 13% said they began to use or increased substance use to cope with the pandemic and around 11% reported they had suicidal thoughts in the 30-days prior to answering the survey. 

The numbers represent a three-fold increase in anxiety over the same period last year and a four-fold increase in depression. 

The proportion having suicidal thoughts was about double seen in the entire year of 2018, the authors said. 

"I don't want to sound pessimistic, but I think we're going to deal with a huge issue of a mental health crisis within the next months or years," Lianski said. "We will be seeing the symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."

Lianski said he’s especially concerned about the mental health of first responders, physicians, people who work in grocery stores, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions unable to access care during the pandemic. 

The study results are distressing -- but no surprise to Jennifer Knight-Levine, executive director of the SAFE Coalition of Massachusetts, an organization that assists those having substance use issues and their families. 

“We are busier, absolutely, than ever,” she said. “Actually after July 4, we’ve seen an increase again in calls -- probably as many as three times as many calls as we were seeing in April.”

Knight-Levine said most of the calls had to do with adolescent substance use issues. 

While the MMWR study included only adults, it found the 18-24 age group most likely to report one or more mental or behavioral symptoms -- with more than 75% doing so. This, despite the fact younger adults are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19. 

But Lianski suggested that may be missing the point. "During this time when the parents of those younger people are completely uncertain about their future in terms of the economy, their health future -- I think the impact on the young generation is huge," he said. "It's very difficult to predict what we're going to see in the next five or ten years."

While the study is literally just a snapshot -- covering the last week in June -- some mental health experts see it as a portent of the future -- if only because psychological wounds can take a much longer time to heal and it is sometimes more difficult for people to seek out help. 

"Right now we can manage those surface struggles. The struggles that folks are willing to say, I need help with. Which is substance use, maybe some mental health concerns," said Knight-Levine. "But what we won't be able to see for a little awhile are folks who are in homes who are experiencing domestic violence who would never have the opportunity to make a phone call, who don't have internet access and don't know resources are available."

SAFE Coalition wants those people -- and others struggling through the pandemic --  to know resources ARE available. 

For more information on SAFE Coalition visit www.safecoalitionma.org

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RESOURCES:

- Massachusetts Coronavirus Information

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