The COVID-19-Depression Connection

It comes as no surprise that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has led to an increase in the number of people who are feeling depressed. Now that the pandemic has persisted for several months, with no end in sight, that number keeps ticking upward.

In late April and early May of 2020, an estimated 23.5 percent of people in the United States were having symptoms of depressive disorder, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By mid-July, that percentage had increased to 29.6 percent. Last year, only about 7 percent of people reported symptoms of depression.

Why is this happening? And what can be done about it? To find out, we spoke with Bradley Gaynes, MD, MPH, a UNC Health psychiatrist.

“More people are reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety and increased substance use,” Dr. Gaynes says. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate to more people receiving treatment.”

COVID-19 Stress Can Spur Depression

The length of the pandemic and the way it has changed everyone’s lives can trigger depression, Dr. Gaynes says.

“In general, most of us are better prepared mentally to run a sprint than we are to run a marathon,” Dr. Gaynes says. “So, when COVID-19 turned from a sprint into a marathon, that’s when things got really challenging for a lot of people.”

COVID-19 is a topic that his patients now bring up frequently in their sessions, Dr. Gaynes says. People are missing their family and friends, struggling with loss of routine, worried about jobs and finances, and feeling hopeless about the state of the world. Many are lonely and isolated, and almost everyone is concerned about getting sick.

People with a prior history of mental health problems or substance abuse are at highest risk of having a depressive episode, but it can happen to anyone, Dr. Gaynes says.

“COVID stressors by themselves don’t make people have a depressive episode, but they can make someone vulnerable to having a depressive episode,” he says.

Symptoms of depression include sadness, loss of interest in activities, hopelessness, reduced energy, feelings of guilt and low self-worth, changes in appetite, irritability and anxiety.

How to Cope with COVID-19-Related Depression

It’s a good time for people to ask themselves how they’re feeling, mentally and emotionally as well as physically, Dr. Gaynes says. “The first key steps are for people to identify whether those symptoms are significantly distressing or impairing them and then to access help.”

There are several things you can do to cope with pandemic-related stress and reduce your chances of becoming depressed, Dr. Gaynes says. These include eating healthy, well-balanced meals, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol or drug use. But there is not one perfect approach for everyone—it may be different combinations of these things, with or without other ingredients, for different people. “People need to understand what brings them the most joy and find their own ‘recipe’ for health.”

A really important part of this recipe, Dr. Gaynes says, is for people to find ways of maintaining their social connections with others even while they are physically distanced.

“For example, I’m a member of a book club that used to meet in person once a month,” Dr. Gaynes says. “But now because of COVID, we are meeting by video. That meeting is something I look forward to all month, and I’ve heard other people in the group say the same. It has been a great way for me to maintain social connections, and to give my mind an opportunity to think about something other than COVID for a while.”

If you’re struggling, tell the people close to you and consider professional help. Your primary care provider is one place to start.

“It’s best not to do it alone—significant others, family members, good friends and colleagues, and professional counselors are all possible supports,” Dr. Gaynes says.

 Do you need help with a mental health concern? Talk to your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, find one near you.