A new study suggests social distancing exacts a mental health cost, even as it prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo credit: @A1Cafel, via Wikimedia Commons

The pandemic is creating a large spike in significant psychological distress, according to a study released last week by a nonprofit think tank.

Findings from what the RAND Corp. characterized as the first longitudinal study of psychological distress during the pandemic show that among a representative sample of Americans, more than 10% reported experiencing symptoms of significant psychological distress during April and May of 2020.

That’s the same amount that was reported to be experienced over an entire year during a survey conducted in 2019, according to the Santa Monica think tank.

“We found equal numbers of people experienced serious psychological distress over 30 days during the pandemic as did over an entire year prior to the pandemic,” said Joshua Breslau, the study’s lead author and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND.

The RAND study also found that people with distress prior to the coronavirus were more likely to report distress after officials began recording COVID-19 cases.

Among people with severe distress prior to the pandemic, 48% reported distress once it had begun. Among people with low or no distress prior to the pandemic, just 3% reported distress during the pandemic.

The findings are published online by the journal Preventive Medicine.

The study found there was a higher risk of an increase in psychological distress among people younger than age 60, suggesting that the distress may be driven more by economic stressors than fears specific to the disease.

The survey was fielded using the Rand American Life Panel, a nationally representative internet panel. Participants were surveyed in February 2019 and again in May 2020, about eight weeks after the declaration of a national emergency.

There were 2,555 respondents to the first wave of the survey and 1,870 respondents to the second wave.

During each survey, participants were asked about their level of psychological distress at various points over the prior year using standard research assessment tools.

More than 12% of the participants reported higher levels of psychological distress during the second survey as compared to the first. Increases in distress were more common among women compared with men, those under 60 compared with those over 60, and Latino people compared with people of other racial/ethnic groups.

“Elevated psychological distress has been observed during prior disasters, but it has never before been seen as a persistent and complex stressor affecting the entire U.S. population,” Breslau said. “Policymakers should consider targeting services to population groups at high risk for elevated psychological distress during the pandemic, including people vulnerable to the economic consequences of social distancing.”

– City News Service