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Nearly a third of Americans reported depression symptoms during second COVID-19 spring, study finds

People walked past BNP Paribas, a French international banking group on Oct. 13, 2020, in New York City.ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Nearly one in three US adults had symptoms of depression this spring, a year after the coronavirus hit, as the pandemic continued to take a toll on the nation’s mental health, according to a new study led by researchers at Boston University.

The researchers reported that 32.8 percent of people surveyed in a representative sample had “elevated depressive symptoms.” That compared with 27.8 percent found in a survey the previous spring. Before the pandemic hit, the rate was 8.5 percent, the researchers said in a paper published Monday in the journal The Lancet Regional Health - Americas.

“Depression did not go down” this spring, said Catherine Ettman, the lead author, who is chief of staff for the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “This is unusual. Following other traumatic events, we have seen depression increase right after the event and then decrease over time and level off. What is unusual is we have not seen the reduction.”

The researchers conducted the survey in March and April and compared it with a survey they conducted in March and April 2020.


Both surveys found the pandemic appeared to be having a disproportionate mental health impact on certain groups of people, hitting harder, for example, among lower-income people, younger people, and people who self-reported “stressors” such as loss of a job or the death of someone close to them from the coronavirus.

Ettman said the latest survey had found a widening gap between lower- and higher-income people in the mental health impact of the pandemic. She pointed out that 58.1 percent of people making less than $20,000 reported being depressed in spring 2021, while 14.1 percent of people making $75,000 or more reported being depressed. Those numbers were further apart than the 46.9 percent and 16.9 percent, respectively, found in the spring 2020 survey.


The latest survey also found that 50.5 percent of people with less than $5,000 in household savings reported depression symptoms, while 24.2 percent of those with $5,000 or more in savings reported the symptoms. That gap had also widened from the spring 2020 survey.

“While much attention has rightly been paid to the physical health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this study suggests that depressive symptoms remain high at the population level and that socioeconomic inequities in mental health are widening,” said the study, whose senior author was Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the BU School of Public Health.

Dr. Roger S. McIntyre, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the new study aligned with previous research he’s done on the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic.

“Insecurity of finances, housing, employment, health are no doubt playing a role as are loneliness, and the chronic unpredictable aspect of this pandemic,” he said in an e-mail.

Ettman said policymakers should act to improve access to child care, to improve access to housing, and to increase employment and pay, saying that “policies that address the social and economic conditions we live in can improve mental health.”

She said the studies suggest a need for vigilance ahead. “We have seen probable depression increase across all age groups. And particularly among young people, having a previous experience with depression is a strong indicator for future occurrence of depression. Understanding the signs of depression will allow us to address them before they become more severe. It will allow us to intervene and hopefully prevent poor mental health in the future.”


“This pandemic has had different effects on different populations, and we want to be mindful of those populations to make sure we can give the support that’s needed,” she said.

“The hope is that over time depression will go down,” she said. “And certainly, if we address the stressors that are contributing to high rates of depression, we would hope that mental health would improve along with it.”

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.