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

Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on mental health across age and demographic categories, according to a new study.

The study assessed 435 people from 46 states in March. At that time, many stay-at-home orders went into effect as the pandemic escalated.

The researchers examined how social distancing behaviors contributed to spikes in symptoms of mental disorders. They include depression, generalized anxiety disorder, intrusive thoughts, insomnia and acute stress.

“We have to confront the mental health toll head-on in order to make social distancing a more sustainable behavior for people to keep up,” said Brett Marroquin, an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University who conducted the research with Vera Vine, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We already know that social relationships are important for mental health, and our findings suggest this is a challenge during the pandemic.”

Study participants with the lowest annual household incomes, less than $20,000, had significantly higher levels of depression than all of the other income categories.

Those with incomes between $20,000 and $39,999 showed significantly higher levels than those in the highest bracket of $120,000 or more, according to the study.

The journal Psychiatry Research published Marroquin’s and Vine’s work in their November issue.

Women reported more intrusive thoughts and marginally more generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. They also noted higher social support, according to the study.

A sub-sample of 118 people surveyed in February and March, earlier in the outbreak, showed increases in depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Adopting personal distancing behaviors was associated with the increases, according to the researchers.

Marroquin said that officials need to take mental health seriously because social distancing is so important to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Researchers collected additional data in July and plan to conduct follow-up assessments in the fall.

– City News Service