The U.S. spends more than $ 200 billion on mental health treatment and management every year, according to the latest data from Mental Health America. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has only widened the gap in those with symptoms of depression or anxiety. This violation has also widened and affects more people.
New research from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of California at San Diego found that 61% of university students surveyed were at risk for clinical depression, a value double what it was before the pandemic. This surge in depression has been accompanied by dramatic lifestyle changes.
“Our results show that the pandemic has dramatically increased anxiety and depression rates among young adults, especially college students. It is disheartening to see that university-aged young adults are reported to have more mental health problems than previous generations, as it was well documented even before the pandemic, ”said Osea Giuntella, assistant professor of economics at Pitt and research coordinator author.
The study documents dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep and time consumption at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical activity disruptions emerged as the main risk factor for depression during the pandemic. Those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who saw the sharp drop in physical activity caused by the pandemic. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental well-being did not automatically recover.
Giuntella and colleagues Silvia Saccardo and Kelly Hyde, a PhD student from Carnegie Mellon, and Sally Sadoff from UC San Diego, examined data from 682 college students who had a smartphone app and a portable for Spring 2019, Fall 2019, and Fall 2019 Fitbit trackers used Spring 2020. Their results show major disruptions in physical activity, sleep, and computer / phone screen time, as well as social interaction, and a sharp drop in wellbeing. This dataset covers the onset of social isolation in the first few months of the pandemic and provides insight into the factors that aggravated mental disorders in this age group.
“We used this unique set of data to examine what factors predict changes in depression,” Saccardo said. “In the dataset, we can see that mental health deteriorates over the course of the semester, but in 2020 it is dramatically worse compared to the previous cohort.”
The team found that participants who maintained healthy habits – planned physical activity and active social life – prior to the pandemic were at greater risk for depression as the pandemic continued and their habits deteriorated. The researchers point to a decline in physical activity as the main risk factor for decreased mental health. However, restoration of physical activity was not associated with restoration of mental well-being.
“We found that, unfortunately, providing incentives to restore physical activity was not enough to restore students’ mental health,” said Giuntella. “With that we have an interesting puzzle. Physical activity and mental health disorders are strongly related, but restoration of physical activity is not meaningfully associated with restoring mental health. Asking for more research on other factors can help us protect and restore students’ mental health, such as promoting social connectedness and resilience. “
Giuntella said people’s spiritual well-being will improve as the COVID-19 vaccines are introduced and represent a possible return to normal.
“The physical and mental well-being of students and the population of all ages should go hand in hand during this pandemic,” said Giuntella. “However, more studies may be needed to understand this trend.”
The results of the study are available online in the February issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project received funding from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
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