New Bouts of Depression, Anxiety Linked to Pandemic, US Survey Finds

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by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) report new bouts of depression and anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but factors that often influence such mental health concerns were not associated with anxiety or depression in the patient group  surveyed for a recent U.S. study.

“We found that ‘new’ depression and anxiety appeared to be related specifically to the pandemic,” Lauren Strober, PhD, a researcher at the Kessler Foundation and the study’s lead author, said in a press release.

“Efforts to understand and ameliorate this situational depression and anxiety are warranted,” the researchers wrote, noting that approaches aiming to help patients cope with stress might be particularly useful in lessening pandemic-related anxiety and depression.

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The study, “Surviving a global pandemic: The experience of depression, anxiety, and loneliness among individuals with multiple sclerosis,” was published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

Researchers conducted an online survey of 142 people with MS between August and September 2021. The respondents were mostly female (84%) and white (85%); their average age was about 50, and they had an average disease duration of nearly 16 years.

All had also participated in prior surveys, conducted between 2013 and 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.

“This study provides a unique contribution to the growing literature on the effects of COVID-19 on the MS population due to its utilization of pre-pandemic data for the study sample,” the researchers wrote. “In other words, this longitudinal study design allows us to determine whether a specific cohort of individuals experienced an increase in mental health symptoms, and to examine pre-existing characteristics that may have made them more or less resilient.”

Of these 142 respondents, 41 (29%) reported significant depression at the time of the survey. Less than half of them (46%) had reported similar depression in previous surveys, meaning the reported depression was new and coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic for a majority — 54% — of these people.

Similarly, of 66 patients experiencing significant anxiety at the time of the survey, 22 (33%) were experiencing new anxiety. This suggests “a presence of depression and anxiety that is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers wrote.

Statistical analyses indicated that patients with new depression tended to be younger than those with pre-existing depression, and patients with new anxiety tended to be younger than individuals who did not report significant anxiety.

Patients with pre-existing depression or anxiety also tended to score more poorly on assessments of self-efficacy and locus of control — essentially, a belief in your own capabilities and a sense of control over your life — compared to individuals who were not depressed. This is consistent with prior research.

In contrast, these personality traits did not significantly differ between newly depressed or anxious patients, compared with MS patients who did not report significant depression or anxiety.

“We saw no association with the person-specific factors commonly associated with depression and anxiety in individuals with MS, namely, personality and self-efficacy,” Strober said.

This finding has important implications for supporting patients, the researchers noted. For example, treatments for depression often focus on challenging deeply ingrained, negative beliefs that a person has about themselves. However, survey results suggest that this approach might not be very useful for MS patients with mental health issues brought on by the pandemic, since these people don’t seem to have an unusually poor self-image associated with their depression.

Instead, findings suggest that giving patients better strategies for coping with the pandemic’s stresses, like isolation, and in finding ways to connect meaningfully with friends, family, and other social networks may be more helpful in addressing mental health problems brought on by COVID-19.

“MS clinicians should take care to understand the nature of their patient’s mood and anxiety symptoms, particularly if new onset post-pandemic, to ensure appropriate treatment targets,” the scientists concluded.

“Individuals with new symptomatology will benefit from cognitive behavioral interventions that stress coping, positive mental health habits, and encouragement to connect with others despite the pandemic, while individuals with pre-existing symptoms may respond to those aimed at improving self-efficacy and other more fundamental factors of emotional distress,” Strober said.

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