The collateral damage from the pandemic continues: Young adults, as well as Black and Latino people of all ages, describe rising levels of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts, and increased substance abuse, according to findings reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a research survey, U.S. residents reported signs of eroding mental health in reaction to the toll of coronavirus illnesses and deaths, and to the life-altering restrictions imposed by lockdowns.
The researchers argue that the results point to an urgent need for expanded and culturally sensitive services for mental health and substance abuse, including telehealth counseling. In the online survey completed by some 5,400 people in late June, the prevalence of anxiety symptoms was three times as high as those reported in the second quarter of 2019, and depression was four times as high.
The effects of the coronavirus outbreaks were felt most keenly by young adults ages 18-24. According to Mark Czeisler, a psychology researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, nearly 63% had symptoms of anxiety or depression that they attributed to the pandemic and nearly a quarter had started or increased their abuse of substances, including alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs, to cope with their emotions.
“It’s ironic that young adults who are at lower risk than older adults of severe illness caused by COVID-19 are experiencing worse mental health symptoms,” Czeisler said.
A survey of about 5,000 people done in April, during the earlier days of the pandemic, Czeisler said, suggested that tremors in the mental health firmament were beginning to surface.
Already in April, high percentages of respondents reported they were spending more time on screens and less time outside than before the pandemic, which translated into more virtual interactions and far fewer in person. They noted upheavals to family, school, exercise and work routines, and to their sleeping patterns. All of these are factors that can contribute to the robustness of mental health.
But why do young adults appear to be crumbling at rates far greater than older people?
Czeisler said that the team hoped to conduct more research along those lines. He mentioned one direction of inquiry that could prove especially illuminating: measuring the extent to which people can tolerate uncertainty, or “the ability to accept the unknown, because now there are so many questions, especially for young people, about relative risk, duration of the pandemic and what their futures will look like.”
In this latest survey, nearly 41% overall reported symptoms of at least one adverse reaction, ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly 11% said they had suicidal thoughts in the month leading up to the survey, with the greatest clusters being among Black and Latino people, essential workers and unpaid caregivers for adults. Men were more likely to express such feelings than women were.
The researchers, who represent a joint effort largely between Monash University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said the symptoms were less pronounced in older groups, perhaps an indication that their longer life experience has been beneficial to helping them ride out the current turbulence.