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Pandemic-related losses and media exposure linked to stress and depression

Researchers at UC Irvine have found that rapidly increasing rates of stress and depression in the United States are directly linked to pandemic-related losses, including the loss of a loved one or a job, and media consumption. 

“The pandemic is not hitting all communities equally,” said study lead author Professor E. Alison Holman. “People have lost wages, jobs and loved ones with record speed. Individuals living with chronic mental and physical illness are struggling; young people are struggling; poor communities are struggling. Mental health services need to be tailored to those most in need right now.”

The research also highlights the connection between mental health and exposure to media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings suggest that many people need to take a break from their television, computer, or smartphone in order to protect their psychological well-being.

“The media is a critical source of information for people when they’re faced with ambiguous, ongoing disasters,” said Professor Roxane Cohen Silver. “But too much exposure can be overwhelming and lead to more stress, worry and perceived risks.”

The experts conducted a national survey of more than 6,500 U.S. residents in March and April of 2020, when the first wave of COVID-19 gripped the country. The study was the first of its kind to investigate the early predictors of rising mental health problems in the United States.

“Over the course of the study, the size of the pandemic shifted dramatically,” said Professor Holman. As a result, respondents who were surveyed later in the study period reported the highest rate of acute stress and depressive symptoms.

The findings offer new insight into how communities can build resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers identified several circumstances that must be prioritized. 

The top priority is protecting people with pre-existing mental and physical conditions, who are more likely to show both acute stress and depressive symptoms. Secondary stressors, such as job and wage loss, a shortage of necessities, are also strong predictors of stress and depression.

In addition, the study revealed that extensive exposure to pandemic-related news and conflicting information in the media is among the strongest predictors of pandemic-related stress.

“It’s critical that we prioritize providing resources to communities most in need of support right now – the unemployed, poor or chronically ill people, and young people,” said Professor Holman. “We also encourage the public to limit exposure to media as an important public health intervention. It can prevent mental and physical health symptoms and promote resilience.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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