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Rising stress and depression in the U.S. is linked to pandemic-related losses, media consumption

Too much media exposure can be overwhelming and lead to more stress, worry and perceived risks, authors say.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Experiencing multiple stressors triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic – such as unemployment – and COVID-19-related media consumption are directly linked to rising acute stress and depressive symptoms across the U.S., according to a University of California Irvine study appearing in Science Advances.

Across the country, people have lost wages, jobs and loved ones with record speed, highlighting the need for more robust mental health services and an expansion of telehealth in the behavioral health space. Those living with chronic mental and physical illnesses are struggling, as are young people and poor communities in particular, results showed.

The research also highlights the connection between mental health and exposure to media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting the need to step away from the television, computer or smartphone to protect psychological wellbeing.

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WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Due in part to these factors – and because of new, temporary waivers on federal restrictions – patients and mental health providers alike have increasingly turned to telehealth. A recent survey from digital behavioral health company Tridiuum found that 81% of behavioral health providers began using telehealth for the first time in the last six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even more importantly, 70% reported they plan to continue offering telehealth services post-pandemic, and that they intend to leverage video visits for at least 50% of their patients moving forward.

With funding from a National Science Foundation RAPID grant, the Irvine team conducted a national survey of more than 6,500 U.S. residents in March and April 2020, as illness and deaths were rising around the country.

Using the NORC AmeriSpeak panel, the study was the first of its kind to examine early predictors of rising mental health problems across the nation. The design let researchers evaluate the effects of the pandemic as it was unfolding in real time.

Over the course of the study, the size of the pandemic swelled dramatically. Accordingly, people surveyed later in the study period reported the highest rate of acute stress and depressive symptoms.

The findings offer insights into priorities for building community resilience in the face of the pandemic: Those with pre-existing mental and physical conditions are more likely to show both acute stress and depressive symptoms. Secondary stressors such as job and wage loss, and a shortage of necessities, are also strong predictors in the development of these symptoms. Extensive exposure to pandemic-related news and conflicting information in the news are among the strongest predictors of pandemic-specific acute stress.

Because of that, the authors say it's critical to prioritize resources for the neediest communities, such as unemployed, poor or chronically ill people.

While the media can be a critical source of information when people are faced with ambiguous, ongoing crises, too much exposure can be overwhelming and lead to more stress, worry and perceived risks, authors said.

THE LARGER TREND

In July, a nationwide survey assessing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the emotional wellbeing of U.S. adults showed 90% of respondents reporting emotional distress related to the pandemic.

There has been a broad range of specific emotional effects related to the pandemic, and certain stressors affected a large majority of the population. Nearly 80% of respondents were frustrated on some level with not being able to do what they normally enjoy doing. Around the same number were worried about their own health, and nearly 90% of those surveyed were more worried about the health of loved ones than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com