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Data shows the pandemic spiked anxiety in the U.S., but state policies can help


As part of this week's series on anxiety in America, we wanted to take a look at how the prevalence of anxiety has changed over time. There's no question that the COVID-19 pandemic and its health and economic impacts have caused a rise in symptoms of anxiety disorders. One recent global study estimated 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders globally caused by the pandemic. And here in the U.S., recent data from the Census Bureau's pulse survey suggests that the number of people experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorders remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. Catherine Ettman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Mental Health. And she's here to tell us more about the recent trends. Hi, Catherine.

CATHERINE ETTMAN: Hi, Juana. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So I'm thinking back to 2020, all of the unknowns and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, all of the deaths from the disease, the changing public health guidelines, economic disruptions. I think it's fair to say that it was a really stressful year for just about everyone out there. Is that something you can see when you look at the data on anxiety?

ETTMAN: Absolutely. So leading up to the pandemic, we did see an increase in trends of anxiety. And in particular, this was true of younger people, people ages 18 to 25, unmarried people and people without a college degree. And then during the pandemic, what we found was that all groups were reporting elevated symptoms of anxiety.

SUMMERS: I wonder when you look at this, were there certain groups that saw a larger raise in anxiety levels during these past three years than others?

ETTMAN: Yes. What we found is that during the pandemic, preexisting gaps existed. They remained, and some of those gaps got larger. And we are seeing larger gaps across things like income and educational attainment. So for those who have fewer resources, we found that they were reporting disproportionately more anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that was in part related to the stressors that they experienced. So in our research in the CLIMB study, which is supported by the Boston University School of Public Health and the de Beaumont Foundation, we found that experiencing more stressors due to the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with more anxiety. So that means people who reported having death of loved ones, job loss or having a family member lose a job. All of these stressors added up together. And unfortunately, people who had fewer assets and fewer resources going into the pandemic were more likely to experience these stressors that then could lead to anxiety.

SUMMERS: You've talked a bit about how big of a factor socioeconomic status plays here, and it made me wonder. Were there any city- or state-level policies that you know of that work to help to lower anxiety, particularly in the populations we've been discussing who have fewer resources available to them?

ETTMAN: Yes. So there were studies that looked at state policies, and one study in particular looked at persons who had income shock. And among those people - for states that had protective policies in place, such as limiting utility freezes or having more generous unemployment policies, those states had less depression and less anxiety than states that had less generous policies.

SUMMERS: And we should just point out that access to mental health care is really difficult, even under the best of circumstances. But before I let you go, I want to end by asking you, is there anything about right now that gives you hope that access is improving or that it could in the future?

ETTMAN: Absolutely. I'm a hopeful person. I have seen the national conversation on mental health shift over the last few years. I think there is a greater understanding of the importance of mental health. And with it, there are many people who are working towards supporting those in need.

SUMMERS: Catherine Ettman is a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Mental Health. Catherine, thank you.

ETTMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.