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Survey Shows Mental Woes Spiked in U.S. Pandemic's First Months

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 6, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- It may be no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing some Americans significant psychological distress. That mental trauma hit people hard, even early in the pandemic, new research shows.

A new RAND Corporation study reports that more than 10% of Americans surveyed said they experienced psychological distress during April and May of 2020 -- the same number as in all of 2019.

"Elevated psychological distress has been observed during prior disasters, but it has never before been seen as a persistent and complex stressor affecting the entire U.S. population," said lead author Joshua Breslau, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"Policymakers should consider targeting services to population groups at high risk for elevated psychological distress during the pandemic, including people vulnerable to the economic consequences of social distancing," he said in a RAND news release.

The survey was based on responses from a nationally representative online panel. In February 2019, 2,555 participants responded; in May 2020, 1,870 did.

Participants were asked about their level of psychological distress at various points during the preceding year.

About 11% of participants to the second survey reported experiencing serious psychological distress in the past month, up from 10.2% in the 2019 survey.

People who were distressed prior to the pandemic were more likely to report distress during the pandemic. Only about 3% of people who had low or no distress prior to the pandemic reported being distressed last spring. About 48% of those feeling pre-pandemic distress also experienced those feelings during the early months of the pandemic.

More than 12% of respondents reported higher levels of psychological distress during the second survey than during the first survey. Women, people under age 60 and Hispanic respondents were more likely to report increased distress than men, people over age 60 and members of other racial/ethnic groups.

Researchers said results of younger people's distress suggest that worry may be driven more by economic stressors than fears specific to coronavirus.

The findings were recently published online in the journal Preventive Medicine.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for coping with stress during the pandemic.

SOURCE: RAND Corporation, news release, Jan. 4, 2021

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