Depression Increases More Than Three-Fold In Wake Of Pandemic, BU Study Finds

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Medical experts and public health leaders have been expressing concern about the wave of mental health problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Some have even referred to it as a possible second pandemic.

Now there's evidence to support that concern. On Wednesday, researchers at Boston University School of Public Health released the first national study to document depression severity during the pandemic. More than a quarter of the 1,441 adults surveyed at the end of March and first half of April — 27.8% — reported depression symptoms.

The report, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, comes on the heels of a CDC survey that found 40% of adults in the U.S. are struggling with mental health issues connected to the pandemic.

The lead BU researcher, Catherine Ettman, told WBUR's All Things Considered the study's findings represent more than a three-fold increase since the last time the same depression questionnaire was administered in a national survey study, in 2017-2018. In that survey, 8.5% of adults reported depression symptoms. Ettman said the BU study also found people with fewer financial resources were more likely to have depression than those in a better economic position.

The level of depression surprised researchers, according to Ettman.

"We found a higher prevalence in the population after [the pandemic started] than is usual ... after other large scale traumas," Ettman said. "For example, after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, 10% of Manhattan residents reported symptoms consistent with depression ... So this is probably because we are experiencing COVID as well as the economic consequences of COVID."

The study found higher levels of depression symptoms in all demographic groups and across all levels of depression severity.

"So there were fewer people who had no depressive symptoms, and there were more people who had mild, moderate, moderately severe and severe depression symptoms," Ettman said.

People's income and financial stability was a "large and significant factor" that affected their mental health, according to Ettman.

"Having lower household income, having lower household savings, being unmarried and being exposed to more COVID stressors was associated with more depressive symptoms," she said. "We need opportunities for screening, which can be done through clinicians and points of care so that people with poor mental health can be identified. And we need to make sure that there are sufficient opportunities for treatment and that that treatment is not only available to those with resources."

This segment aired on September 2, 2020.


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Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.


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Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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