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COVID-19 has produced ‘alarming’ increase in loneliness

A survey finds that the coronavirus pandemic is having a troubling effect on the psychological health of young adults in the United States.

“Addressing mental health and substance use problems in young adults, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, is an imperative,” says Viviana Horigian from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Her statement is in response to her new study investigating the psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic on young adults. The study found an “alarming” increase in loneliness since the arrival of COVID-19.

In the survey of 1,008 people aged 18–35, 80% of participants reported “significant depressive symptoms” during the pandemic.

“These young adults are the future of our nation’s social fabric,” says Horigian, lead author of the study. “They need to be given access to psychological help, coupled with the development and dissemination of brief online contact-based interventions that encourage healthy lifestyles.”

The research appears in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

The study team based their research on an anonymous online questionnaire that contained 126 questions tracking the prevalence of various pandemic effects, including loneliness, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug use.

The average age of participants in the survey was 28, and 86% were over age 23. The researchers collected the responses between April 22 and May 11, 2020.

While only a pre-pandemic assessment of these questions in this group would allow a direct evaluation of the impact of COVID-19, the answers supplied by participants allowed researchers to draw some comparisons between psychological symptoms and behaviors pre-pandemic and during the pandemic.

Roughly 65% of study participants reported increased feelings of loneliness since the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Scientists have already identified links between loneliness and other psychological issues. Indeed, in the current study, people who described themselves as feeling lonely also reported experiencing anxiety (76%), a loss of feelings of connectedness (58%), and depression (78%).

Of these individuals, 58% also said that they had increased the amount of alcohol they drank, and 56% had increased their use of drugs.

Among the respondents, 30% reported harmful and dependent levels of drinking.

In all, 19% of respondents said they were binge-drinking weekly, and 44% revealed that they engaged in binge-drinking at least as often as once each month.

For the entire population of people who filled out the questionnaire, 80% said they were drinking alcohol. And 22% reported the use of drugs.

Of those people using drugs during the pandemic, 38% said their drug use was severe.

Horigian says that we need to find ways to help young adults maintain emotional equilibrium during and after difficult times such as these. She notes that these issues are not new, although the pandemic has brought them into high relief. She explains:

“The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the loneliness and addiction epidemics in the U.S. is here to stay.”

Helping young adults cope may deliver the added benefit of helping the larger community as well.

Says co-author Renae Schmidt, “As we invest in developing the sense of cohesion and social connectedness in these generations, we can address social and physical resiliency in our communities at large.”

Schmidt sees the online learning in which so many young adults are engaged as potentially providing a platform for the delivery of supportive services:

“Students need sustaining online delivery of [relevant] coursework, increasing counseling services, and deploying outreach through telehealth services.”

Not everyone, however, is learning remotely during the pandemic. Schmidt adds:

“For young adults not engaged in school, aggressive patient outreach by primary care physicians should be used to ensure screening and intervention, also via telehealth.”

People would also benefit from “access to psychological help coupled with the development and dissemination of brief online contact-based interventions that encourage healthy lifestyles.”

“These efforts, and others,” concludes Horigian, “can help alleviate the problems of loneliness and its manifestations; yet it may take an integrated, multi-faceted, and concerted approach, rooted and supported by mental health prevention and well-being promotion boosted by workforce development and research on intervention development to readdress these trajectories.”

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