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BU study finds depression symptoms on the rise during pandemic

People waited outside the CareWell Urgent Care in Inman Square to get a COVID-19 antibody test.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The percentage of US adults with depression symptoms more than tripled earlier this year as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the country, according to a new study led by researchers at Boston University.

Researchers found that 27.8 percent of US adults had depression symptoms as of mid-April, compared with 8.5 percent before the pandemic, the university said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that lower income and savings were factors associated with a greater likelihood of depression symptoms.

Having less than $5,000 in household savings, for example, was associated with a 50 percent greater risk of having depression symptoms, the study said.


“These findings suggest that there is a high burden of depression symptoms in the US associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and that this burden falls disproportionately on individuals who are already at increased risk,” the study said.

The study also found that people who had a higher number of “stressors,” such as losing a job or the death of someone close to them from the coronavirus, were more likely to have depression symptoms.

“Post–COVID-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations,” the study said.

The study’s senior author, Dr. Sandro Galea, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said in the statement that depression in the general population after previous large-scale traumatic events has been observed to double, at most.

“We were surprised to see these results at first, but other studies since conducted suggest similar-scale mental health consequences,” he said.

The study looked at survey responses from 5,065 adults collected from 2017 to 2018, and 1,441 adults collected from March 31 to April 13. As of April 13, 96 percent of Americans were being asked to stay home and the unemployment rate was skyrocketing, researchers noted.


The researchers said that, to their knowledge, theirs was the first study to document the mental health of US residents during the pandemic.

The study’s lead author, Catherine Ettman, a doctoral student at the Brown University School of Public Health, said in the statement, “Persons who were already at risk before COVID-19, with fewer social and economic resources, were more likely to report probable depression [during the pandemic], suggesting that inequity may increase during this time and that health gaps may widen.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at