WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has led to a marked deterioration in Americans’ mental health, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study made public on Thursday. That study, which surveyed 5,412 Americans, found that “40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.”
According to the new study, 31 percent of respondents were suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression; 26 percent experienced symptoms of traumatic disorder; 13 percent were using drugs or alcohol more heavily, or for the first time, to cope with the pandemic; and 11 percent had seriously contemplated suicide.
“Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse” mental health outcomes than other groups, the study concluded.
These findings represented levels of psychological distress higher relative to pre-pandemic levels. Anxiety symptoms tripled in incidence compared with the same period in 2019; the incidence of depression symptoms quadrupled. The rate of serious suicidal thoughts doubled in comparison to levels recorded in 2018.
Significantly, more than 90 percent said they were not being treated for anxiety, depression or posttraumatic stress disorder before the pandemic struck, meaning that their symptoms arrived with the coronavirus and its attendant social disruptions.
“Addressing mental health disparities and preparing support systems to mitigate mental health consequences as the pandemic evolves will continue to be needed urgently,” the authors of the study said. But with much of the nation still under lockdown, state and municipal governments strained and people desperately looking for both work and childcare, it is not clear just what a response will look like, or how effective it will be.
People of color have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic in terms of infection rate. The pandemic is also more likely to leave them suffering from psychological ailments. Suicidal thoughts were significantly more frequent among Black (15.1 percent) and Hispanic (18.6 percent) respondents than they were in the cohort at large. Hispanics were also more likely to suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression than their counterparts in other demographic groups (40.8 percent of Hispanics reported such symptoms).
President Trump has repeatedly urged states to lift lockdown orders, arguing that the social isolation they foster are more detrimental to public health than the virus itself. The study by the CDC makes no evaluation of measures like lockdowns, or countervailing measures like reopenings. But it does suggest that the aggregate effect of the pandemic has been detrimental to the American psyche.
The survey was undertaken between June 24 and June 30. By that time, the coronavirus had killed tens of thousands in the New York metropolitan area and was moving south, to Florida, Georgia and Texas, where it would kill thousands more. In recent weeks, the pandemic has also penetrated the Midwest, while also continuing to take a toll on California.
The conversation about mental health came to the fore earlier this month when former first lady Michelle Obama admitted that the pandemic, combined with the grotesque images of police brutality and Washington’s vituperative politics, were causing her anguish.
“I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” Obama said on her new podcast. She later said she was “doing just fine,” but the admission seemed to give many Americans license to discuss their own experiences throughout the last six months. With many schools not opening to in-person instruction, the influenza season approaching and the economic recovery in an apparent stall, those experiences could remain challenging well into 2021.
New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior put the matter bluntly in an op-ed published the same day Obama revealed her own struggles. “We are not, as a nation, all right,” she wrote, citing statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation and other sources that describe an irritable nation that is sleeping too little and eating too much, tumbling into what Senior calls “a sulfurous pit of distress.”
And there was the tweetstorm from Los Angeles-based writer Susan Orlean, whose adventures with rosé were a reminder — if a highly amusing one — that alcohol has become an all-too-reliable crutch for a jittery, lonely population.
Just how the nation will emerge from that pit remains unclear. Trump has promised a vaccine before the end of the year, but that time frame has been widely described as overly optimistic. Most experts believe that the current state of affairs will continue well into 2021.
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