Psychological distress, depression and anxiety were prevalent among both men and women half a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and well beyond the initial lockdown periods, according to a new paper published Thursday in Lancet Regional Health-Americas
The study used data on 2,359 adults, a subset of participants nationwide who were enrolled in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study-3. The researchers compared data between two different time periods — 2018 and July through September 2020 — to characterize levels of psychological distress.
They found that 42% of people in the study reported experiencing some mild psychological distress in the pandemic in 2020, compared to only 32% in 2018. Ten percent of 2020 study participants had some moderate-to-severe anxiety or depression. And depression was more common in those with pre-existing health conditions, like cancer.
Emotions can slip into anxiety and depression when negative feelings don’t go away after a short period of time, said Dr. Cynthia Ackrill
, a certified stress mastery educator.
“If the worry is intrusive beyond the stressor, that’s anxiety,” said Ackrill, who was not involved in the study. “If the sadness is a mood that you can’t shift beyond the situation, that’s depression.”
The researchers also found women were more likely than men to report higher psychological distress during the pandemic — especially anxiety.
Women tend to be the household caretakers, even when gender roles are more balanced than they were in the past, said John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in Chicago, who was not involved in the study.
“They take on not only their fears, concerns and anxieties, but also those around them,” Duffy said.
Higher psychological distress before the pandemic was associated with higher levels of distress during the pandemic.
They found that for men, elevated psychological distress before the pandemic was associated with an 11-fold increase in depression. That compared to a 6-fold increase in depression for women who had elevated psychological distress before the pandemic.
“Higher levels of work/life balance stressors were more strongly associated with depression for women and anxiety for men; however higher levels of financial stressors were more strongly associated with depression among men,” the researchers wrote.
During the pandemic, one or more financial stressors was associated with more than double the odds of psychological distress.
The importance of seeking help
The researchers said their findings underscore the need for regular mental health assessment by health care professionals.
Mindful meditation can help people who are feeling stressed, said Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project
, a youth mental health nonprofit.
A technique she recommended involves using your five senses to identify things you can see, hear, taste, smell, touch and then something you are grateful for.
“The focus it takes to list each of these things is often just enough focus to move our minds off what is stressing us and into the moment,” said Breland-Noble, who was not involved in the study.
It’s also important to engage in activities you used to enjoy before you felt distressed and set aside dedicated time for self-care, Duffy said.
Some examples of self-care include journaling, walking with a friend or watching a favorite television show, he said.
If anyone continues to struggle with their mental health, Duffy recommended they seek professional mental health support such as counseling.