There’s a Pandemic of Depression

New data shows depression rates are high and the burden falls disproportionately on people already at risk

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic is an ongoing trauma for people around the world, and new data reveals that the rising rates of depression are especially high for people already at risk for severe economic stress.

A new study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open and led by researchers at Boston University School of Public Health reports that the prevalence of depression symptoms among American adults has risen more than threefold during the Covid-19 pandemic. Having a lower income, having less than $5,000 in savings, and having exposure to stressors like job loss and death of a loved one from Covid-19 were all associated with a greater risk for depression during the pandemic.

The researchers compared results from a survey of depression symptom prevalence from about 1,440 people during Covid-19 to the responses of over 5,000 people from before the pandemic. Specifically, they found that the prevalence of depression symptoms increased from 8.5% before Covid-19 to 27.8% during the pandemic.

The study structure has limitations because the two surveys are not of the same people, though they are considered comparable groups. Even so, the findings are in line with other research on the mental health impact of Covid-19, as well as trends in depression rates from prior national and international crises.

Being in a lower income bracket and having less than $5,000 in household savings was associated with a 50% greater risk of having symptoms of depression during the pandemic. This suggests that people who were already at an economic disadvantage are experiencing a substantial mental health burden.

Data has long suggested that depression increases following traumatic events — as was seen during prior outbreaks like Ebola and the September 11 terrorist attacks — and other studies during the pandemic have shown similar trends in other countries. A March 2020 study of health care workers in the Hubei province of China and surrounding regions found high rates of depression. The researchers argue in the new study that the impact of Covid-19 on the U.S. population may be substantially greater than past crises. “This increase in depression symptom prevalence is higher than that recorded after previous mass traumatic events, likely reflecting the far more pervasive influence of Covid-19 and its social and economic consequences than other, previously studied mass traumatic events,” they write.

The researchers also suggest that this mental health toll could increase over time. The study was conducted at the very beginning of the pandemic and ended in mid-April 2020 when the death toll was more than 23,000 people in the United States and there were more than 600,0000 confirmed cases. As of now, over 183,000 people in the U.S. have died of Covid-19 and there are more than 6 million infected. “We imagine that as the virus spreads and more cases of Covid-19 are confirmed, so too may mental illness increase among those with Covid-19 and those around them,” the researchers write.

The study suggests that the combined tragedy of a health crisis with a severe economic downturn makes an increase in mental illness among Americans likely. For months people have been reporting high symptoms of anxiety and depression. While there’s yet to be a national strategy to address this mental health need, studies like this highlight the people most likely to be suffering, and in need of attention and resources.

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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