The United States spends more than $ 200 billion each year on mental health treatment and management. The coronavirus pandemic outbreak 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 Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California at San Diego found that 61% of college 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.
The study documents dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep and time consumption at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical activity disorders emerged as the main risk factor for depression during the pandemic. Importantly, those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who experienced a sharp drop in physical activity caused by the pandemic. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental well-being did not automatically recover. The results of the study are available online in the February 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“There is an alarming rise in anxiety and depression rates among young adults, especially college students,” said Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor at the CMU’s Department of Social and Decision-making Sciences and senior author of the paper. “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”
Saccardo and her colleagues Osea Giuntella, Kelly Hyde, and Sally Sadoff examined data from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a Fitbit wearable tracker for Spring 2019, Fall 2019, and Spring 2020. Their results show major disruptions in physical activity. Sleep and computer / phone screen time and 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 mental health deteriorate 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 higher risk for depression as the pandemic progressed. 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 randomized a group of people to be incentivized to exercise. While our brief intervention increased physical activity in that group, it had no mental health effects. These results open up many opportunities for future research,” Saccardo said. “It is an interesting puzzle for future studies to understand why we do not see a symmetrical relationship between resumption of physical activity and mental health.”
This study documents how COVID-19 has resulted in major mental wellbeing disorders in college students, a vulnerable population.
“The results are generalizable to the young adult population, a highly exposed group that has seen rising rates of depression over the past few decades and has been dramatically exposed to the disorders caused by the current epidemic,” said Giuntella, assistant professor of economics at Pitt. “We need more work to understand whether similar trends have been observed in other age groups.”
Saccardo and her colleagues published the project entitled “Lifestyle and Mental Health Disorders During Covid-19”. This project received funding from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).
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