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Pandemic's Emotional Hammer Hits Hard


Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, mental health experts have been worried about how it's affecting people's emotional well-being. Now a new study in JAMA Network Open finds what many of us have already presumed - more Americans have been feeling depressed since the pandemic began earlier this year. And as you also might expect, it's harder on some than others. The study found that people with fewer financial resources and those directly affected by the pandemic are more likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression. NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here to tell us more.

And Rhitu, would you share some more details about what the study found?

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Yeah. So the study surveyed about 1,500 people from a nationally representative population and found that the number of people experiencing symptoms of depression was nearly three times higher compared to pre-pandemic times and that about a quarter of the population is feeling depressed.

PFEIFFER: A quarter is a significant chunk of the population.

CHATTERJEE: Indeed. Even the researchers were surprised. They told me that typically after disasters, say, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, they saw about a twofold increase in rates of depression. But a tripling of numbers is unusually high.

PFEIFFER: It is a tripling. Do they have a theory on what accounts for the pandemic being a more depressing event than those other disasters and tragedies?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. The researchers I spoke with think that unlike something like a hurricane that passes through, this pandemic isn't a one-time event. It's not a single trauma. It's actually brought on multiple traumas. There's the constant stress and anxiety about the disease itself. Then there's the impact on the health of those infected, those who've lost loved ones and just the record number of people who've lost jobs. So really, it's an onslaught of many traumas.

PFEIFFER: Right. And in many ways, we don't even have each other to rely on. There's this distancing that keeps us apart at a time we need support.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly, and that's something we all feel, right? It's taken away our biggest buffer against stresses and traumas - this ability to gather together and support one another. And psychologists think that that's really making it much harder for us to bounce back emotionally.

PFEIFFER: And you know, Rhitu, this is obviously still ongoing with no clear end to the pandemic in sight. It's also a collective event, something almost everyone is experiencing in some way, which is unusual. I imagine both of those factors make it even harder on us.

CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. You know, the uncertainty of the future, not being able to resume normal life, not knowing when things will get better makes it really hard for people to recover. And while we're all feeling the stress of the pandemic, the study finds that those who are at a higher risk of depression are those who started out with fewer social and financial resources. So for example, people with lower incomes were twice as likely to be depressed, and people who had less than 5,000 in savings were also more likely to be depressed.

PFEIFFER: And as we said, this study also found that people who've lost jobs or are hurting financially, as you pointed out, are especially at risk of depression, probably not surprisingly.

CHATTERJEE: Not a big surprise, of course. They're definitely at higher risk. Even the study found that. And the same is true for people who've lost a loved one and are grieving over that loss. And this is why researchers think this is so important in terms of addressing rising rates of mental health problems - that communities who are struggling more should be targeted, should - they should be screened for depression so that they get the help. Otherwise, as one of the authors told me, he worries that this pandemic may have paved the way for a second pandemic of depression.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee.

Thanks for this information.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.