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By now we all know that the impact of the covid-19 pandemic goes beyond just our physical health. With covid anxiety slowly turning into coronaphobia, research has it that covid-19 can also give you depression.
In fact, a multi-institutional team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, and University of California, San Diego found that 61% of surveyed university students were at risk of clinical depression, a value twice the rate prior to the pandemic. This rise in depression came alongside dramatic shifts in lifestyle habits.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened the chasm for those experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This breach has also widened, affecting more people.
The study documented dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep, and time use at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. Disruptions to physical activity emerged as a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic.
Those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who experienced the large declines in physical activity brought on by the pandemic. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental well-being did not automatically rebound. The results of the study are available online in the February 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“There is an alarming rise in the rate of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students,” said Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at CMU and senior author on the paper. “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”
Saccardo and her colleagues, Osea Giuntella, Kelly Hyde, and Sally Sadoff, examined data gathered from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a Fitbit wearable tracker for spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020.
Their results show large disruptions in physical activity, sleep, and computer/phone screen time and social interaction, alongside large declines in well-being. This data set spans the onset of social isolation during the early months of the pandemic, offering an insight into the factors that exacerbated mental health disorders in this age group.
“We used this unique dataset to study what factors are predictive of changes in depression,” said Saccardo. “[In the dataset,] we can see that mental health gets worse as the semester progresses, but it is dramatically worse in 2020 compared to the previous cohort.”
The team found that participants who maintained healthy habits prior to the pandemic—scheduled physical activity and active social life were at a higher risk for depression as the pandemic continued.
The researchers point to a decline in physical activity as the leading risk factor for diminished mental health. However, restoration of physical activity was not met with a rebound in mental well-being.
“We randomized a group of individuals to receive an incentive to exercise. While our short intervention increased physical activity among this group, it did not have an impact on mental health. These results open up a lot of opportunities for future research,” said Saccardo.