Anxiety and depression among Americans heightened during winter COVID-19 surge: CDC study


The frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms among American adults amplified during the winter COVID-19 surge, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing the pandemic’s impacts on the country’s mental health.

The research, spanning from August 2020 to June 2021, found anxiety and depression frequency peaked between December 2020 and January 2021, as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed to new heights during the holiday season.

On average, the frequency of anxiety symptoms climbed by 13 percent from August to December 2020 before dropping by 26.8 percent by June 2021. Similarly, the frequency of depression symptoms rose by 14.8 percent before falling by 24.8 percent in the same time periods. 

Despite the drop, researchers found the frequency of anxiety and depression still remained “substantially” higher than compared to before the pandemic.   

The study does not include data from before August 2020 and from after June 2021, so it’s unclear how the anxiety and depression levels compared to when the pandemic first started and when the delta variant became the dominant strain in the U.S.

The rise and fall in frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms “mirrored” the trends in the weekly count of new COVID-19 cases nationally, indicating the surges may have played a role.

Utilizing the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, researchers analyzed trends in anxiety and depression frequency across the country and in every state. Aligning with the national averages, most states saw anxiety and depression frequency reach its highest point in December 2020 or January 2021.  

The biweekly survey was not conducted between Dec. 22, 2020 and Jan. 5, 2021 amid the holidays and between March 30, 2021 to April 13, 2021 as a new survey cycle began.

The frequency of anxiety symptoms was calculated using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale, while depression was detected using questions from the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ). The highest possible score for each was 3.0, meaning the participant experienced symptoms “nearly every day.”

Average anxiety levels rose from 2.0 to 2.3 from August to December 2020 before decreasing to 1.7 by June 2021. In the same time periods, depression frequency increased from 1.6 to 2.0 before falling to 1.4.

Comparatively, 2019 data shows the average frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms among adults was 0.63 and 0.51, respectively, “substantially less than” during the pandemic.

Researchers said the changes in anxiety and depression frequency show why “real-time monitoring” for mental health is necessary, especially during a pandemic, to respond to increased needs. 

“Tracking these outcomes, including by demographic characteristics, can provide early indicators of potential increases in the demand for mental health services and for the health care providers needed to treat persons with clinically significant symptoms,” the report reads.