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Anxiety, depression rose only ‘modestly’ in first year of COVID, study finds


A new medical study finds that reports of clinical depression and anxiety among American adults spiked only “modestly” during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, despite online surveys that suggested otherwise.

The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, analyzes data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a monthly state-based telephone survey.

Ten public health researchers who conducted the study found that “clinically significant anxiety and depression increased only modestly overall” among more than 1.7 million adults who answered the survey’s mental health questions from March to December 2020, compared with data from 2017 to 2019.

That challenges the results of internet surveys that suggested a bigger mental health crisis during the pandemic’s first year, the study noted.

“Claims of dramatic increases in clinically significant anxiety and depression early in the COVID-19 pandemic came from online surveys with extremely low or unreported response rates,” the study states.

However, the study cautioned that anxiety and depression could have worsened among first responders and health care workers as the pandemic continued in 2021 and this year.

Lead researcher Ronald C. Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said the CDC’s monthly household survey doesn’t break down the data for these groups.

“Some prior long-term crises have started out with low increases or even in some cases decreases in mental illness but to have more substantial increases later,” Mr. Kessler told The Washington Times in an email. “This is common for suicide rates. So caution is needed in interpreting the results.”

According to the study, an estimated 12.4% of American adults experienced clinically significant anxiety and depression from March to December 2020 – just 0.4 percentage points higher than the 12.1% who did so from March to December during the years 2017 to 2019.

The study’s analysis of CDC data found that anxiety and depression increased slightly among women, Hispanics, retirees, the short-term unemployed and adults with a high school education or less.

Anxiety and depression decreased slightly among men, non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites, college graduates, students, homemakers, the long-term unemployed and those unable to work.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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