Pandemic’s First Month Caused as Many Americans Psychological Distress As All of Prior Year

Psychological distress among Americans was as prevalent during the first month of the coronavirus pandemic as it was for the entire year prior to the COVID-19 emergency, according to a new study. 

The findings, which come from the nonprofit research organization RAND Corporation, have been published online by the peer-reviewed medical journal Preventive Medicine.

For the study, researchers surveyed a nationally representative internet panel in February 2019, then again in May 2020, about eight weeks after President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency. The first survey had 2,555 respondents, while the second had 1,870. 


Both surveys asked participants about their psychological distress levels during the prior year, and the responses further support what behavioral health providers already know: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a huge spike in the number of people facing mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) problems.

“We found equal numbers of people experienced serious psychological distress over 30 days during the pandemic as did over an entire year prior to the pandemic,” Joshua Breslau, the study’s lead author and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, said in a press release announcing the news.

Overall, nearly 11% of survey respondents said they experienced significant psychological distress during April and May 2020. Meanwhile, the entire previous year saw about the same percentage of participants answer that way.


Researchers also found that people who experienced distress pre-pandemic were more likely to experience it during the COVID-19 emergency. Plus, the findings suggest that distress was more prevalent among those younger than age 60, as well as in women rather than men. 

“Elevated psychological distress has been observed during prior disasters, but it has never before been seen as a persistent and complex stressor affecting the entire U.S. population,” Breslau said. “Policymakers should consider targeting services to population groups at high risk for elevated psychological distress during the pandemic, including people vulnerable to the economic consequences of social distancing.”

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