Health and Wellness

Depression rates have tripled during the pandemic — how to recognize the signs and respond to them

@natashayummyphoto | Twenty20

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on people's mental health — and a new study suggests the effects are widespread and longer-lasting than anticipated.

Depression rates tripled over the course of the first year of the pandemic, according to research from Boston University published in medical journal The Lancet Regional Health. Pre-pandemic, about 8% of U.S. adults experienced depression. But in a survey of 1,161 people taken between March and April of 2020, that statistic jumped to 28%.

And when researchers surveyed the same people a year later, they saw a jump to 32%.

People often experience elevated levels of depression after a traumatic event, Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University's School of Public Health and one of the study's authors, tells CNBC Make It. It can be caused by natural disasters, terrorist attacks or, in this case, a pandemic.

Usually, Galea says, depression rates rise during the event and then level out over time — but that's not happening with Covid.

"It is unusual to see sustained levels of depression 12 months into a traumatic experience," Galea says. The Covid pandemic is "unique in its ongoing nature," which likely contributes to people's continued and heightened levels of depression, he says.

Fortunately, experts say, you can take a few simple steps to help you feel better, whether you're coping with depression or just trying to stay afloat during the pandemic:

Look out for these six signs

Experiencing depression isn't the same as feeling sad or down. "Really, the big thing to look out for is: To what degree is it affecting a person's functioning?" says Dr. Michael Ziffra, an associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

According to the American Psychological Association, depression is typically characterized by a combination of:

  • a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities
  • sleep issues
  • low energy
  • an inability to concentrate
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Everyone feels a little off during the pandemic, Ziffra says. That's expected and normal. Someone with depression, on the other hand, might feel unusual levels of fatigue, notice significant changes in their sleeping or eating or have a lot of difficulty with basic daily tasks, like showering, grooming, cleaning or paying bills.

The study identified the most common stressors causing pandemic depression as job loss, death of a loved one due to Covid, feeling alone and a lack of childcare.

It also noted that pandemic depression is disproportionately affecting lower-income populations: People making less than $20,000 a year in 2020 were 2.3 times more likely to experience depression, compared to people making $75,000 or more. This year, the study noted, that likelihood increased sevenfold.

Expert advice on how to cope

Depression is a catch-22: The symptoms often keep you from pursuing strategies and coping mechanisms that alleviate them, Ziffra says.

For example, when you're feeling particularly down, you might feel completely unmotivated to exercise, talk to a friend or get outdoors — but those activities can provide a sense of enjoyment and stimulation that will help with depression.

Be proactive and plan these activities in advance, Ziffra advises, so you feel less pressure to be spontaneous and do something to boost your mood.

"Every time you wake up in the morning, there should already be at least one thing on your schedule that is going to give you a reason to get up and get out," he says.

Ziffra also recommends two other simple habits to help with depression: get quality sleep, which will help you function better during the daytime, and eat well and minimize your use of substances like alcohol or cannabis.

While a cocktail might help you unwind after a long day, he says, its impact on your brain and body in the long run isn't helpful.

If you're experiencing depression, or you think you might be, consider seeking help from a professional. You can typically find therapists or counselors through your health insurance provider, and in resources like Psychology Today that allow you to browse clinicians online by specialty or location.

If you want help but can't find an available or affordable therapist, Ziffra suggests asking your primary care doctor for recommendations.

"Most primary care doctors nowadays have a pretty reasonable knowledge of treatments for depression," he says. "They can at least get you started."

Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter

Don't miss:

The queen of tech VCs reveals the two things you need to become a killer negotiator
The queen of tech VCs reveals the things you need to become a killer negotiator