Young adults reporting largest uptick in anxiety, depression symptoms, CDC finds

New evidence released Friday from the CDC builds on well-documented worsening mental health trends amid the pandemic, especially among young adults. However, researchers did not determine a cause of symptoms, and suggested seasonal-related depression could play a role in the results.

The federal health agency specifically found a significant increase in adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the prior seven days to surveys (36.4% to 41.5%), while also noting an uptick in adults in need of therapy but did not receive these services over a four-week period (from 9.2% to 11.7%). Findings stemmed from responses to a so-called Household Pulse Survey conducted by the CDC and U.S. Census Bureau from August 2020 to February 2021, which indicated younger adults aged 18-29 and those with little education were the most hard-hit.

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To assess depression and anxiety, survey respondents were asked whether they felt nervous, uncontrollable worry, little interest in activities or feeling hopeless. Other questions probed prescribed medications, therapy or unmet need for therapy.

“During January 20, 2021– February 1, 2021, more than two in five adults aged ≥18 years experienced symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder during the past 7 days,” CDC researchers wrote in the findings released Friday. “One in four adults who experienced these symptoms reported that they needed but did not receive counseling or therapy for their mental health.”

The report also documented a “significant increase” in adults reporting taking prescription meds or undergoing mental health counseling, from 22.4% to 25.0%. The overall data involves limitations because it was self-reported and professionals did not confirm the results, with authors writing, “Questions about mental health symptoms might be predictive of but do not necessarily reflect a clinical diagnosis.”

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The report noted that the findings reflected previously reported trends of worsening mental health among younger adults early in the pandemic, but the new findings show the trends continued to worsen into early 2021.

As mentioned, study authors could not definitively link the uptick in symptoms to pandemic-related events, such as business restrictions and lockdowns, because the report did not examine cause of symptoms. With this, seasonal affective disorder, or worsening mental health into the darker and colder winter months could play a role in the symptom change, per the report.

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However since the onset of the pandemic, expanded telehealth has aimed to mitigate mental health decline and compensate for shuttered in-person services, and many mental health counselors offering virtual care voiced a dramatic increase in patients during the pandemic.

“Continued near real-time monitoring of mental health trends by demographic characteristics is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. These trends might be used to evaluate the impact of strategies that address mental health status and care of adults during the pandemic and to guide interventions for groups that are disproportionately affected.”