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Early empirical study on COVID-19 related depression and anxiety gives reason for optimism

by Jul. 22, 2020, 12:00 PM

The pandemic is having profound effects on mental health for people around the world. One of the first longitudinal studies to assess COVID-19 related stressors and mental health symptoms led by Autumn Kujawa, assistant professor of psychology and human development, shows that many people will recover as the situation improves.

Autumn-Kujawa
Autumn Kujawa (Vanderbilt University)

A preprint of the article, “Exposure to COVID-19 Pandemic Stress: Associations with Depression and Anxiety in Emerging Adults in the U.S.” was published online on June 29 in PsyArXiv.

For Kujawa, who typically studies neural and emotional responses contributing to the development of depression and anxiety, understanding how people are managing their emotions amid an entirely new experience was of interest. “COVID-19 has widespread impacts ranging from minor annoyances like not being able to get toilet paper to major stressors, including physical health concerns and even loss of life, uncertainties about the economy, loneliness or conflictual relationships with roommates and partners,” said Kujawa. “We set out to determine how to measure and assess the ways that the impact of these stressors is shaping peoples’ mental health.”

Kujawa’s lab created a Pandemic Stress Questionnaire (PSQ) that was distributed to a diverse sample of 450 emerging adults in the U.S., including minority groups, via online platform in May. Kujawa and her lab found that the PSQ offers empirical support for the range of interruptions to daily life that people are experiencing, and how those relate to the risk for depression and anxiety. Questions on the PSQ assessed experiences ranging from being separate from loved ones to changes in employment status to experiences of racism and discrimination for participants. One month later, 288 participants completed a follow-up questionnaire to assess the stability of the PSQ and prospective associations between stress and internalizing symptoms.

The May results showed very high rates of stress exposure, particularly among participants who identified as women or as Black. The results are suggestive that these groups are suffering the burden of the pandemic more than others. Rates of depression and anxiety were also very high in May, but when the PSQ was redistributed in June, the rates of depression and anxiety decreased across all groups. This reduction shows that for many, there may not be lasting depression and anxiety, and as the world recovers from the pandemic so too will people’s mental health.

“We’re all experiencing loss and hardship, together and individually. It is normal to feel sadness, anger and a sense of grief connected to how the pandemic is impacting our lives,” said Kujawa. “If someone is feeling depressed or down every day and cannot do normal tasks, is not enjoying anything anymore, or is thinking about death or suicide, those are all signs that it is time to get help. One thing to note is that many mental health providers are offering their services online so that people can get the help they need safely. Reaching out to get help is very important for coping with these experiences and recovering from depression or anxiety.”

If you or someone you know needs help, there are many resources available including:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • This 24/7 crisis line offers support and guidance for those experiencing emotional distress
  • Crisis Text Line, Text HOME to 741741
    • This 24/7 line offers free support at your fingertips
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
    • This site has tips on mental health issues and a helpful glossary of terms related to mental health
  • Reaching out directly to your health insurance company or primary care provider to ask for recommendations for mental health professionals that accept your insurance

Kujawa intends to distribute the PSQ again in a few months to measure how the impacts of the pandemic on peoples’ lives have changed. Kujawa notes that those struggling should do their best to seek professional guidance to get through this period but remains optimistic. She said, “We do think that the decrease in symptoms from May to June shows hope that people will get through this immensely challenging time.”

This work was supported in part by the Vanderbilt CTSA grant UL1TR002243 from NCATS/NIH.

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