A recent survey performed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found evidence of more than a threefold increase in the number of U.S. adults who report symptoms of psychological distress — an umbrella term that covers a wide spectrum of emotional suffering, ranging from normal feelings of vulnerability, sadness, and fears to problems that can become disabling.
About 13.6% of American adults reported such symptoms, jumping from only 3.9% in 2018, under the backdrop of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Young adults, low-income families, and Hispanic minorities were the most vulnerable groups identified by the study.
The researchers analyzed data on 1,468 adults aged 18 and older who participated in NORC AmeriSpeak, a nationally representative online survey panel, between April 7 and April 13.
During the survey, the participants had to answer a questionnaire that was designed to assess feelings of emotional suffering and symptoms of anxiety and depression in the past 30 days.
These results were then compared to an identically designed survey performed in 2018 — and they were very worrisome.
1 in 4 young Americans are struggling with psychological distress
Among young adults aged 18-29, the proportion of Americans who experienced psychological distressed skyrocketed from 3.7% in 2018 to 24% in 2020.
Those living in households with annual incomes less than $35,000 had an incidence of psychological distress of 11.4%, compared to 7.9% in 2018.
Nearly one in five Hispanic adults (20%) reported psychological distress in 2020 compared to just 4.4% in 2018.
Older adults weren’t spared either. The researchers found that the proportion of adults aged 55 and older suffering from psychological distress nearly doubled from 3.8% in 2018 to 7.3% in 2020.
The COVID-19 fallout on mental health
The researchers argue that the high levels of psychological distress can be pinned to stressors linked to COVID-19. For instance, 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the last 10 weeks — something the scale of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression.
Dire economic uncertainties, coupled with justified fears of contracting COVID-19 are thus major driving forces for the significant rise of psychological distress among American adults.
Intriguingly, feelings of loneliness increased from 11% in 2018 to 13.8% in 2020 — a mild increase compared to those seen in other measures of psychological distress. This suggests that social isolation weighs less among the main factors driving psychological distress during the pandemic.
“We need to prepare for higher rates of mental illness among U.S .adults post-COVID,” Beth McGinty, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management, said in a press release. “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 study suggests that the distress experienced during COVID-19 may transfer to longer-term psychiatric disorders requiring clinical care. Health care providers, educators, social workers, and other front-line providers can help promote mental wellness and support,” she added.
The findings appeared in the journal JAMA.