A new survey conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found a more than threefold increase in the percentage of U.S. adults who reported symptoms of psychological distress — from 3.9 percent in 2018 to 13.6 percent in April 2020.
The survey, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, found that young adults ages 18 to 29, adults across all ages in low-income households, and Hispanics expressed the highest psychological distress.
The survey, conducted online April 7 to April 13, 2020, found the percentage of adults ages 18-29 in the U.S. who reported psychological distress increased from 3.7 percent in 2018 to 24 percent in 2020.
It also found that 19.3 percent of adults with annual household incomes less than $35,000 reported psychological distress in 2020 compared to 7.9 percent in 2018, an increase of 11.4 percentage points, according to researchers.
Nearly one-fifth, or 18.3 percent, of Hispanic adults reported psychological distress in 2020 compared to 4.4 percent in 2018, a more than four-fold increase of 13.9 percentage points, the researchers reported.
The researchers also found that psychological distress in adults age 55 and older almost doubled from 3.8 percent in 2018 to 7.3 percent in 2020.
The survey found only a slight increase in feelings of loneliness, from 11 percent in 2018 to 13.8 percent in 2020, suggesting that loneliness is not driving the increased psychological distress, according to the researchers.
The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — social distancing, fear of contracting the disease, and economic uncertainty, including high unemployment — have negatively affected mental health, the researchers noted. The pandemic has also disrupted access to mental health services, they added.
“We need to prepare for higher rates of mental illness among U.S. adults post-COVID,” said Beth McGinty, Ph.D., an associate professor in the John Hopkins Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “It is especially important to identify mental illness treatment needs and connect people to services, with a focus on groups with high psychological distress, including young adults, adults in low-income households, and Hispanics.”
The survey used a scale to assess feelings of emotional suffering and symptoms of anxiety and depression in the past 30 days. The survey questions included in this analysis did not ask specifically about COVID-19, according to the researchers. The scale, a validated measure of psychological distress, has been shown to accurately predict clinical diagnoses of serious mental illness, the researchers said.
Using NORC AmeriSpeak, a nationally representative online survey panel, the researchers analyzed survey responses of 1,468 adults ages 18 and older. They then compared the measure of psychological distress in this survey sample from April 2020 to an identical measure from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey.
“The study suggests that the distress experienced during COVID-19 may transfer to longer-term psychiatric disorders requiring clinical care,” McGinty said. “Health care providers, educators, social workers, and other front-line providers can help promote mental wellness and support.”
Survey results were published in a research letter in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study was supported by the Johns Hopkins University, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Source: PsychCentral Survey Finds Psychological Distress Among Adults Tripled During Pandemic