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United In Pandemic Misery: National Survey Finds At Least Moderate Depression In Nearly Half Of Young Adults

A woman, wearing a mask against COVID-19, looks out to sea across Wollaston Beach. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A woman, wearing a mask against COVID-19, looks out to sea across Wollaston Beach. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A new survey finds that among young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24, nearly half show symptoms of at least moderate depression, and the misery cuts across races, genders and regions.

"I don’t think that anyone has escaped the consequences of either COVID or our response to COVID, but this group seems to have been especially hard hit," says lead author Dr. Roy Perlis, director of the Center for Quantitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Among them, ten times as many report thoughts of self-harm as before the pandemic, the survey finds. It's an online questionnaire taken by a representative sample of about 2,000 people ages 18-24, funded by the National Science Foundation and run by a consortium of universities including Harvard and Northeastern.

The survey has been administered repeatedly since the pandemic hit, and Perlis says the widespread distress has stayed relatively constant since spring rather than declining as people adjusted to new realities.

"We are still very much in the midst of this," he says, "not just in terms of COVID itself, but in terms of the mental health fallout."

Perlis, who is also a psychiatrist and psychiatric researcher, says mental health support should particularly focus on young adults who’ve lost jobs or homes, because they show the highest levels of distress.

A few of the survey's most striking findings from among the 18-24 age cohort:

• Just over 47% report at least moderate symptoms of depression on a standard questionnaire.

• Roughly three-quarters report sleep disruption.

• The 47% showing symptoms of depression contrasts with a more typical figure of about 7 or 8%. The report categorizes respondents as depressed if their answers on the questionnaire score high enough on an index of concern that their doctor would normally recommend evaluation and treatment.

• The 18-24 age range is the group hardest hit by depressive symptoms, the survey finds. Perlis links the high rates of depression to other transitions in young adults' lives — new schools, job, homes — and the likelihood that their jobs are lower-wage and less flexible than older workers'.

• More than a third of young adults say they're having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, compared to a pre-pandemic rate closer to 3%. Those high rates may not translate into actual suicide attempts, Perlis says, but do speak to the high levels of distress.

• Just over half of respondents say their school or university has been closed. About one quarter report a pay cut and one quarter report losing their jobs.

• The young adults who experienced such dramatic disruptions report higher rates of depression: Among people who couldn't pay their rent or have been evicted, more than 60% report symptoms of depression. Among those whose jobs suffered, more than 50% are depressed.

• Given such widespread distress, the number of mental health professionals on the Biden administration's coronavirus task force is also striking: zero. "I was disappointed not to see a psychiatrist or psychologist on that task force," Perlis says. "I think that's an oversight" that is likely to be addressed, he adds.

He hopes news of the overwhelming numbers of young adults experiencing depression right now will help prompt those who need it to seek treatment, he says.

Perlis acknowledges that sadness and distress are normal responses to the losses of the pandemic era, but says when emotional distress leads to difficulty sleeping and focusing and functioning, "that's when it becomes something that that needs to be treated."

"I think it's helpful for people to realize they're not alone," he says, "that these symptoms are incredibly widespread and that help is available."

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Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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