Philadelphia residents experienced elevated rates of anxiety and depression due to work-related disruptions during the first wave of COVID-19 last spring and summer, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University surveyed 911 Philadelphia residents over age 18 about their health and work-related issues as well as their perceptions, worries, and concerns about the pandemic and COVID-19 testing between April and July. Respondents also answered questions from the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), which clinicians use to measure anxiety and depression symptoms.
According to the responses, 45% of women qualified as having anxiety and 13% for depression. Among men, 31% qualified for anxiety and 8% for depression. While men were more likely to report elevated rates of anxiety related to job loss and balancing child care with professional responsibilities, women were more likely to report anxiety symptoms and stress from reduced work hours.
Researchers also found that respondents who worked in fields that were most directly affected by the pandemic and the resulting lockdown — such as health care, entertainment, and personal services — experienced more symptoms of anxiety and depression than those in other professions.
“Among some professions, those rates were just as high as among those who were health-care workers,” said Igor Burstyn, an associate professor at Dornsife and a coauthor of the paper, which has been submitted for peer review. “There was so much attention focused on hardships faced by health-care workers, and that is not to be diminished. But all sorts of other people were suffering out there, and they didn’t have any direct exposure to the virus.”
On the whole, rates of anxiety and depression experienced by those who completed the survey are far above normal, Burstyn said. The finding is in line with previous research suggesting a severe decline in mental health across the country — in late June, 40% of American adults had reported struggling with mental health or substance use, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One limitation of the study is that the sample does not represent all working people in Philadelphia, said Tran Huynh, an assistant professor at Dornsife and a coauthor of the paper. Gathering data from communities of color was particularly challenging, she said, even though the survey had been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish.
“There’s an issue of internet access,” Huynh said. “And it’s just really difficult to reach communities of color in general for research during this time.”
Nonetheless, there was enough evidence to suggest what many mental health experts in the area have already suspected for months — that disruptions to Philadelphians’ professional lives is related to an increased risk of anxiety and depression, even if they do not come into contact with individuals infected by the coronavirus at work, Burstyn said.
Burstyn and Huynh are hoping to conduct a second survey this summer to gauge what effects subsequent waves of COVID-19 has had on rates of anxiety and depression in Philadelphia — specifically whether access to behavioral health services has improved mental health between waves.
“I’m willing to hazard a guess that people will fall into two categories,” Burstyn said. “Some have probably made peace with [the pandemic] and found a way to adapt because they found some coping mechanisms, but I also suspect that there are people who have spiraled further down the rabbit hole in terms of their mental health, and they’re not getting better.”