COVID’s mental-health toll: how scientists are tracking a surge in depression!

Mar 24, 2021, 11:03 AM

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year, new fast-spreading variants have caused a surge in infections in many countries, and renewed lockdowns. The devastation of the pandemic - millions of deaths, economic strife and unprecedented curbs on social interaction - has already had a marked effect on people’s mental health.

Researchers worldwide are investigating the causes and impacts of this stress, and some fear that the deterioration in mental health could linger long after the pandemic has subsided.

Ultimately, scientists hope that they can use the mountains of data being collected in studies about mental health to link the impact of particular control measures to changes in people’s well-being, and to inform the management of future pandemics.

The data that emerge from these studies will be huge, says sociologist James Nazroo at the University of Manchester, UK. “This is really ambitious science,” he says.

More than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December, an increase from 11% the previous year. Data from other surveys suggest that the picture is similar worldwide.

Major events that have shaken societies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, have left some people with psychological distress for years, says Marques. A study of more than 36,000 New York residents and rescue workers revealed that more than 14 years after the attack, 14% still had post-traumatic stress disorder and 15% experienced depression - much higher rates than in comparable populations (5% and 8%, respectively).

The distress in the pandemic probably stems from people’s limited social interactions, tensions among families in lockdown together and fear of illness, says psychiatrist Marcella Rietschel at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany.

Studies and surveys conducted so far in the pandemic consistently show that young people, rather than older people, are most vulnerable to increased psychological distress, perhaps because their need for social interactions are stronger.

Data also suggest that young women are more vulnerable than young men, and people with young children, or a previously diagnosed psychiatric disorder, are at particularly high risk for mental-health problems.

Scientists running large, detailed international studies say that they might eventually be able to show how particular COVID-control measures - such as lockdowns or restrictions on social interaction - reduce or exacerbate mental-health stress, and whether some populations, such as minority ethnic groups, are disproportionately affected by certain policies. That could help to inform the response in this pandemic and future ones, say researchers.

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