A Longitudinal Study of Psychological Distress in the United States Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published in: Preventive Medicine, Volume 143 (February 2021). doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106362

Posted on RAND.org on January 26, 2021

by Joshua Breslau, Melissa L. Finucane, Alicia Revitsky Locker, Matthew D. Baird, Elizabeth Roth, Rebecca L. Collins

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused financial stress and disrupted daily life more quickly than any prior economic downturn and on a scale beyond any prior natural disaster. This study aimed to assess the impact of the pandemic on psychological distress and identify vulnerable groups using longitudinal data to account for pre-pandemic mental health status. Clinically significant psychological distress was assessed with the Kessler-6 in a national probability sample of adults in the United States at two time points, February 2019 (T1) and May 2020 (T2). To identify increases in distress, psychological distress during the worst month of the past year at T1 was compared with psychological distress over the past 30-days at T2. Survey adjusted logistic regression was used to estimate associations of demographic characteristics at T1 (gender, age, race, and income) and census region at T2 with within-person increases in psychological distress.

The past-month prevalence of serious psychological distress at T2 was as high as the past-year prevalence at T1 (10.9% vs. 10.2%). Psychological distress was strongly associated across assessments (X2(4) = 174.6, p < .0001). Increase in psychological distress above T1 was associated with gender, age, household income, and census region. Equal numbers of people experienced serious psychological distress in 30-days during the pandemic as did over an entire year prior to the pandemic. Mental health services and research efforts should be targeted to those with a history of mental health conditions and groups identified as at high risk for increases in distress above pre-pandemic levels.

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