Report: Patients struggling with COVID-related psychological distress

Todd Shryock

Todd Shryock, contributing author

Physicians need to be aware of the most at-risk groups in order to deliver quality care that meets all of their needs

A new report shows that one in three adults is experiencing psychological distress related to COVID-19, something physicians need to take into account when creating treatment plans. The adverse effects show up more in women, younger adults, residents of rural areas, those at high-risk of infection, and those of lower socio-economics status, according to the researchers.

Psychological distress can manifest as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and insomnia.

"Understanding these factors is crucial for designing preventive programs and mental health resource planning during the rapidly evolving COVID-19 outbreak," said Professor Tazeen Jafar, from the Health Services and Systems Research Program at Duke-NUS, who led the study, in a statement. "These factors could be used to identify populations at high risk of psychological distress so they can be offered targeted remote and in-person interventions."

Jafar and her team performed a meta-analysis of 68 studies conducted during the pandemic, encompassing 288,830 participants from 19 countries, to assess risk factors associated with anxiety and depression among the general population.

The finding that women were more likely to experience psychological distress than men is consistent with other global studies that have shown that anxiety and depression are more common in women. "The lower social status of women and less preferential access to health care compared to men could potentially be responsible for the exaggerated adverse psychosocial impact on women," the researchers suggested. "Thus, outreach programs for mental health services must target women proactively."

The research also showed that younger adults, aged 35 and under, were more likely to experience psychological distress than those over the age of 35. Although the reasons for this are unclear, previous studies have suggested that it might be due to younger people's greater access to COVID-19 information through the media. This current study also confirmed that longer media exposure was associated with higher odds of anxiety and depression. However, having stronger family and social support and using positive coping strategies were shown to reduce the risk of psychological distress.

"The general public and healthcare professionals need to be aware of the high burden of psychological distress during the pandemic as well as education on coping strategies," Jafar said. "Patients need to be encouraged to seek help, and access mental health counseling services with appropriate referrals."