Mental health and the pandemic: What U.S. surveys have found – Pew Research Center

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The coronavirus pandemic has been associated with worsening mental health among people in the United States and around the world. In the U.S, the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 caused widespread lockdowns and disruptions in daily life while triggering a short but severe economic recession that resulted in widespread unemployment. Three years later, Americans have largely returned to normal activities, but challenges with mental health remain.
Here’s a look at what surveys by Pew Research Center and other organizations have found about Americans’ mental health during the pandemic. These findings reflect a snapshot in time, and it’s possible that attitudes and experiences may have changed since these surveys were fielded. It’s also important to note that concerns about mental health were common in the U.S. long before the arrival of COVID-19.
Three years into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Pew Research Center published this collection of survey findings about Americans’ challenges with mental health during the pandemic. All findings are previously published. Methodological information about each survey cited here, including the sample sizes and field dates, can be found by following the links in the text.
The research behind the first item in this analysis, examining Americans’ experiences with psychological distress, benefited from the advice and counsel of the COVID-19 and mental health measurement group at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
At least four-in-ten U.S. adults (41%) have experienced high levels of psychological distress at some point during the pandemic, according to four Pew Research Center surveys conducted between March 2020 and September 2022.
Young adults are especially likely to have faced high levels of psychological distress since the COVID-19 outbreak began: 58% of Americans ages 18 to 29 fall into this category, based on their answers in at least one of these four surveys.
Women are much more likely than men to have experienced high psychological distress (48% vs. 32%), as are people in lower-income households (53%) when compared with those in middle-income (38%) or upper-income (30%) households.
In addition, roughly two-thirds (66%) of adults who have a disability or health condition that prevents them from participating fully in work, school, housework or other activities have experienced a high level of distress during the pandemic.
The Center measured Americans’ psychological distress by asking them a series of five questions on subjects including loneliness, anxiety and trouble sleeping in the past week. The questions are not a clinical measure, nor a diagnostic tool. Instead, they describe people’s emotional experiences during the week before being surveyed.
While these questions did not ask specifically about the pandemic, a sixth question did, inquiring whether respondents had “had physical reactions, such as sweating, trouble breathing, nausea, or a pounding heart” when thinking about their experience with the coronavirus outbreak. In September 2022, the most recent time this question was asked, 14% of Americans said they’d experienced this at least some or a little of the time in the past seven days.
More than a third of high school students have reported mental health challenges during the pandemic. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from January to June 2021, 37% of students at public and private high schools said their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic. That included roughly half of girls (49%) and about a quarter of boys (24%).
In the same survey, an even larger share of high school students (44%) said that at some point during the previous 12 months, they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row – to the point where they had stopped doing some usual activities. Roughly six-in-ten high school girls (57%) said this, as did 31% of boys.
On both questions, high school students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning were far more likely than heterosexual students to report negative experiences related to their mental health.
Mental health tops the list of worries that U.S. parents express about their kids’ well-being, according to a fall 2022 Pew Research Center survey of parents with children younger than 18. In that survey, four-in-ten U.S. parents said they’re extremely or very worried about their children struggling with anxiety or depression. That was greater than the share of parents who expressed high levels of concern over seven other dangers asked about.
While the fall 2022 survey was fielded amid the coronavirus outbreak, it did not ask about parental worries in the specific context of the pandemic. It’s also important to note that parental concerns about their kids struggling with anxiety and depression were common long before the pandemic, too. (Due to changes in question wording, the results from the fall 2022 survey of parents are not directly comparable with those from an earlier Center survey of parents, conducted in 2015.)
Among parents of teenagers, roughly three-in-ten (28%) are extremely or very worried that their teen’s use of social media could lead to problems with anxiety or depression, according to a spring 2022 survey of parents with children ages 13 to 17. Parents of teen girls were more likely than parents of teen boys to be extremely or very worried on this front (32% vs. 24%). And Hispanic parents (37%) were more likely than those who are Black or White (26% each) to express a great deal of concern about this. (There were not enough Asian American parents in the sample to analyze separately. This survey also did not ask about parental concerns specifically in the context of the pandemic.)
Looking back, many K-12 parents say the first year of the coronavirus pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s emotional health. In a fall 2022 survey of parents with K-12 children, 48% said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat negative impact on their children’s emotional well-being, while 39% said it had neither a positive nor negative effect. A small share of parents (7%) said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat positive effect in this regard.
White parents and those from upper-income households were especially likely to say the first year of the pandemic had a negative emotional impact on their K-12 children.
While around half of K-12 parents said the first year of the pandemic had a negative emotional impact on their kids, a larger share (61%) said it had a negative effect on their children’s education.
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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.