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Mental health impact of COVID-19 is growing, researchers say

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The effect of the coronavirus on mental health is rising, leaving people more stressed, anxious and depressed than ever, according to a nationwide survey

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital surveyed 1,500 people between May 18 and May 30 — a time when COVID-19 was at its peak with over 20,000 people diagnosed each day. 

The team developed a questionnaire specifically designed to assess the emotional impact of COVID-19, the Pandemic Emotional Impact Scale, which allowed them to target how people were responding to isolation, unemployment and risk of infection.

“Feelings of stress, anxiety and depression are common emotional responses to life’s particular challenges,” said Shelley A. Johns, PsyD of the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine. “These are all forms of human suffering that occur in combination.”

It’s no surprise these feelings are heightened during the pandemic, she added.

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Report findings showed 55% percent of adults reported feeling increased levels of stress in the previous four weeks compared to January. Hispanics had the greatest level of stress at 61.1%, followed by white respondents at 55% and Black Americans at 51%.  

“Stress is typically caused by an external trigger,” said Johns. “The trigger can be short-term such as deadlines at work or at school. They can also be long-term such as problems managing a chronic illness or finances.”

38% of respondents said they were experiencing financial difficulties either because of a job loss or reduced income as a result of COVID-19.

When asked about anxiety/depression pre and post-pandemic, 10% of people said they were extremely anxious and 11% said they were extremely depressed.

These feelings of stress, anxiety and depression can manifest physically with symptoms such as fatigue, muscle tension, digestive troubles, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating and irritability so it’s best not to hide them. 

Shelley likens trying to suppress such feelings to holding an inflated beach ball underwater.

“A great deal of time, effort and energy must be expended to keep the ball underwater. Before we know it, the ball springs to the surface and often at the most awkward moment. Eventually, our day at the pool becomes centered on controlling the beach ball and we miss out on playing with our friends or relaxing in the sunshine.”

“Given the significant emotional and financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it is important that we devote adequate resources and attention to the mental health needs of the population throughout the remaining course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said study co-author Sarah Ballou, PhD, director of gastrointestinal psychology at BIDMC in a news release. “We need to establish relevant research to prepare for any future pandemics.”

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over five years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets.

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