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One year in, psychological distress remains high for many Americans

A year into the coronavirus pandemic many of us are experiencing the same spiked levels of stress as we did last March, when the virus was just beginning to reshape our lives in scarily uncontrollable ways.

That finding comes from a recent Pew Research Center survey that tallied responses from 10,121 U.S. adults and found that 21% are experiencing high levels of psychological distress. The percentage is only slightly lower than the 24% of respondents who fell in that category in last year’s survey.

Although it’s pretty consistent with last year’s percentages, it is still worth noting that this represents a fifth of U.S. adults in a state of significant psychological distress which for some of them has lasted more than a year. Pre-COVID, could we have anticipated this many people would be experiencing sustained mental health distress? And how will that impact post-pandemic mental health treatment in the country?

Although I’ve previously written about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the state of people’s mental health, what’s interesting to note here is that the two factors driving much of the distress for people are not these emotions, but fear of one’s own personal health from the virus or fear of financial loss or instability.

About 27% of those who fear becoming infected and hospitalized with the virus fell into the high psychological distress category versus 11% who did not see the virus as a threat, according to Pew.

Survey results also show that 34% of those who see the pandemic as threatening their financial stability fall into the high psychological distress category with those having trouble paying their bills or who see themselves as being in poor financial shape having even higher representation there, at 40% and 44% respectively.

Outside of motivating factors, younger adults -- those age 18 to 29 -- were the most likely to report feelings of anxiety, loneliness or depression. According to Pew, 45% of those in this age group reported being anxious or on edge “occasionally or a moderate amount of time,” compared to 28% of those in older groups.

Since the pandemic began, there have been numerous surveys, studies, and reports on the overall state of American mental health with most of them showing an increase in self-reporting of depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness. What will be interesting to see is how we as a society move forward once the majority of people, especially those in groups who are not able to easily access vaccines yet, get vaccinated.

Interestingly, one of the factors influencing people negatively now is the perception of the fairness of the vaccination process, according to the Pew survey which found higher distress levels for people who perceive the process as unfair or too difficult to understand.

In its surveys, Pew Research Center uses a panel of randomly selected U.S. adults that it describes as a nationally representative group. This particular survey was sent to 11,605 people of which 87% or 10,121 responded.

More details on the survey methodology can be found here. For a more detailed breakdown of survey results, go here.

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