No one would blame you if you’ve been a bit more down or anxious this year. There hasn’t been all that much in 2020 to smile about, and the United States has seen an unprecedented uptick in mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic. Surprisingly, however, a new collaborative study finds that one seemingly unlikely demographic of Americans has shown a great deal of resilience.
Researchers surveyed a group of older U.S. adults who had already been dealing with a major depressive disorder diagnosis before COVID-19 arrived in North America. Unexpectedly, participants gave little indication that they’ve experienced an increase in depression or anxiety during the pandemic. Most would assume that this group would be particularly at risk of more intense mental anguish, but these findings dispute that narrative. These individuals also showed robust resilience to any social distancing or isolation-related stress.
This research was conducted as a joint effort between the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Pittsburgh, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, the New York State Department of Mental Health, the Center for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto, and Washington University in St. Louis.
What exactly is going on here? The study’s authors speculate that a lifetime spent battling depression and anxiety left these individuals well prepared for the mental pressure of a global viral pandemic.
“We thought they would be more vulnerable to the stress of COVID because they are, by CDC definition, the most vulnerable population,” explains Helen Lavretsky, MD, a professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, in a university release. “But what we learned is that older adults with depression can be resilient. They told us that coping with chronic depression taught them to be resilient.”
For so long, we as a society tended to look down on people who were open and forthcoming about mental health issues. If you admitted to friends or co-workers you were dealing with depression or anxiety, in all likelihood you would have been labeled as “mentally weak.” This study shows just how archaic that type of thinking is.
To reach these conclusions, researchers interviewed a group of older adults (average age 69 years old) during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of those participants had already been enrolled in other studies focusing on hard-to-treat cases of depression. Two separate anxiety/depression assessments (PHQ-9 & PROMIS) were used to gauge how participants were feeling about the pandemic and everything that came along with it.
To the research team’s surprise, participants showed no signs that the coronavirus has caused them to feel worse. In comparison to before COVID-19, their depression and anxiety levels were essentially the same.
All things considered, researchers say perhaps we could all stand to learn a few mental health pointers from these individuals.
“These older persons living with depression have been under stress for a longer time than many of the rest of us. We could draw upon their resilience and learn from it,” says Dr. Lavretsky.
When asked how they usually deal with depression, stress, and anxiety, participants said that sticking to a set and regular schedule each day tends to help. Besides that, filling up empty time with hobbies, chores, work, and exercise is another common strategy for staving off negative thoughts. Finally, mindfulness techniques that emphasize focusing on the present moment can help as well.
In addition to that main finding, a few other interesting observations were made. Notably, most surveyed adults said they are much more worried about actually contracting COVID-19 than anything involving quarantining and social isolation.
Another surprising response from many participants was that while they were all following social distancing and isolation recommendations at the time of the survey, most didn’t actually feel all that lonely. Why? They were using technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Considering the participants’ average age, this was an unexpected observation.
However, it wasn’t all positivity all the time. Participants also reported that their overall quality of life had declined a bit since the pandemic started, and many others expressed frustration about how the government had responded to COVID-19. Consequently, a significant portion of surveyed adults expressed fear for their mental health in the future if social distancing recommendations persist for months and months.
That last finding is of particular importance. This study shouldn’t indicate to anyone that older adults with a history of depression or anxiety don’t need help or support during these tough times. Considering how long this pandemic has been going on, many of those surveyed for this research may not be feeling as well as they were a few months ago.
In conclusion, the study’s authors would like to see more research conducted at a later date on this topic to help determine the pandemic’s effect on mental health among similar groups over a longer period.
The full study can be found here, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.