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Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Educational Objective
To understand the prevalence of depression symptoms in US adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic
1 Credit CME
Key Points

Question  What is the burden of depression symptoms among US adults during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic compared with before COVID-19, and what are the risk factors associated with depression symptoms?

Findings  In this survey study that included 1441 respondents from during the COVID-19 pandemic and 5065 respondents from before the pandemic, depression symptom prevalence was more than 3-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Lower income, having less than $5000 in savings, and having exposure to more stressors were associated with greater risk of depression symptoms during COVID-19.

Meaning  These findings suggest that there is a high burden of depression symptoms in the US associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and that this burden falls disproportionately on individuals who are already at increased risk.


Importance  The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the policies to contain it have been a near ubiquitous exposure in the US with unknown effects on depression symptoms.

Objective  To estimate the prevalence of and risk factors associated with depression symptoms among US adults during vs before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This nationally representative survey study used 2 population-based surveys of US adults aged 18 or older. During COVID-19, estimates were derived from the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being study, conducted from March 31, 2020, to April 13, 2020. Before COVID-19 estimates were derived from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted from 2017 to 2018. Data were analyzed from April 15 to 20, 2020.

Exposures  The COVID-19 pandemic and outcomes associated with the measures to mitigate it.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Depression symptoms, defined using the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 cutoff of 10 or higher. Categories of depression symptoms were defined as none (score, 0-4), mild (score, 5-9), moderate (score, 10-14), moderately severe (score, 15-19), and severe (score, ≥20).

Results  A total of 1470 participants completed the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being survey (completion rate, 64.3%), and after removing those with missing data, the final during–COVID-19 sample included 1441 participants (619 participants [43.0%] aged 18-39 years; 723 [50.2%] men; 933 [64.7%] non-Hispanic White). The pre–COVID-19 sample included 5065 participants (1704 participants [37.8%] aged 18-39 years; 2588 [51.4%] women; 1790 [62.9%] non-Hispanic White). Depression symptom prevalence was higher in every category during COVID-19 compared with before (mild: 24.6% [95% CI, 21.8%-27.7%] vs 16.2% [95% CI, 15.1%-17.4%]; moderate: 14.8% [95% CI, 12.6%-17.4%] vs 5.7% [95% CI, 4.8%-6.9%]; moderately severe: 7.9% [95% CI, 6.3%-9.8%] vs 2.1% [95% CI, 1.6%-2.8%]; severe: 5.1% [95% CI, 3.8%-6.9%] vs 0.7% [95% CI, 0.5%-0.9%]). Higher risk of depression symptoms during COVID-19 was associated with having lower income (odds ratio, 2.37 [95% CI, 1.26-4.43]), having less than $5000 in savings (odds ratio, 1.52 [95% CI, 1.02-2.26]), and exposure to more stressors (odds ratio, 3.05 [95% CI, 1.95-4.77]).

Conclusions and Relevance  These findings suggest that prevalence of depression symptoms in the US was more than 3-fold higher during COVID-19 compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors (eg, job loss) reported a greater burden of depression symptoms. Post–COVID-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations.

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Article Information

Accepted for Publication: July 27, 2020.

Published: September 2, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2020 Ettman CK et al. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, Boston University School of Public Health, 715 Albany St, Talbot 301, Boston, MA 02118 (sgalea@bu.edu).

Author Contributions: Ms Ettman had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: Ettman, Abdalla, Cohen, Vivier, Galea.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: Ettman, Galea.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.

Statistical analysis: Ettman, Cohen, Galea.

Obtained funding: Abdalla, Galea.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Abdalla, Cohen, Sampson.

Supervision: Vivier.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Galea reported serving as a consultant for Sharecare and Tivity Health. No other disclosures were reported.

Funding/Support: This study was funded in part through support from the Rockefeller Foundation–Boston University 3-D Commission. Ms Ettman worked on this project while funded by grant No. T32 AG 23482-15 from the National Institutes of Health.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

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