The pandemic is worsening mental health for women, middle-aged adults, a new survey finds

Mental health disorders like depression are rising among certain groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, multiple surveys and studies have indicated that mental health has declined for a number of groups and populations.

  • Mental health challenges have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A new survey from the University of Michigan has quantified some of the effects.
  • Women and US adults ages 50 to 64 have reported worsening mental health during the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For months, experts have warned about the prospect of a an entirely different threat unleashed by the coronavirus: a mental health crisis that could sweep the country.

Their concerns are rooted in more than a year of social isolation, the grief and loss, and economic and emotional trauma that the pandemic has inflicted. A new survey conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan is shedding light on which groups might be most vulnerable to the effects.

Four groups – women, people ages 50 to 64, people with higher levels of education, and individuals in either fair or poor physical health – “are more likely to have experienced worsened mental health during the first nine months of the pandemic,” or to have felt heightened anxiety or sleep problems, researchers found.

As many as one-fifth of all older adults said they felt their mental health had worsened throughout the health crisis, the findings concluded.

Women were found to be likelier than men to have broached the topic with a health provider or considered medication as a treatment option. The research was conducted by surveying more than 2,000 adults across the US in late January in the National Poll on Health Aging.

Based on the poll’s findings, which were published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the University of Michigan researchers now suggest that health providers look more closely at older adults to spot signs of worsening mental health, they said this week in a blog post on the university’s website.

Stepping up treatment offerings

“We need to continue to look for and address the mental health effects of the pandemic and connect people to treatment resources,” Lauren Gerlach, a doctor and assistant professor at the university’s medical school who was the primary author of the newly-published paper, said in a statement.

“Poor mental health can decrease functioning, independence, and quality of life for older adults but treatment can significantly help,” she added.

There were some bright spots for certain groups who participated in the poll. People ages 65 to 80 were less likely to report declining mental health, the university said, and, overall, two-thirds of respondents viewed their mental health as being “excellent or very good.”

Nearly a third added that they’d taken steps to “improve their mental health” since the pandemic began, like increasing exercise, diet, and meditation.

Other warning signs are emerging

Meanwhile, other research has alluded to the dangers of a looming mental health crisis brought on by COVID-19.

Roughly 40% of US adults have professed to feeling the symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder – about four times higher than those who felt similarly in 2019, prior to the pandemic, the Kaiser Family Foundation said in February.

As early as May 2020, the World Health Organization sounded the alarm over the potential for “a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months.”

In that warning, which called for increased investments in mental health services, the WHO reported that women were especially at risk of declining mental health, while balancing demands like childcare and home-schooling.

And Insider reported in June that mental health and substance use experts are concerned that this tumultuous year might also have intensified the consumption of alcohol among underage youth.

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