The Coming Depression Onslaught

If this study is to be believed, we’re in trouble.

A study from Boston University conducted a major survey on adults and depression, using previous scores as a baseline measurement. The study used the PHQ-9 questionnaire, which is a nine-question screening method that can be used to determine if someone may be suffering from depression. A 2017-2018 study found that 8.5% of adults were suffering from depression. 

The results were horrifying: 27.8% of Americans are now clinically depressed, according to the results of the study. That is more than a tripling of depression rates. It is massive, it is significant, and it cannot be treated by the current state of our mental health system. 

The study, of course, attributed much of this rise to COVID-19 and the economic stressors placed on society by this disease. The study also found that people with less than $5,000 in savings 50% were more likely to be depressed, further showing the connection between economics, a social safety net, and mental health.

I have a couple of broader thoughts – first, on the general situation, and second, what this study shows us.

First, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is catastrophically bad but not as bad as it appears! Yes, I said that. First, the good news. This will abate as the pandemic abates and economic damage mitigates. That will happen. It will take time, but I don’t think this represents a fundamental shift in our moods or economic status for the majority of people who took this study.

The bad news? Let’s say this only permanently affects 5% of America. Uhh…that’s tens of millions of people. That is fundamentally, catastrophically terrible. We could be staring down the barrel of millions of people who will never recover without assistance that we cannot hope to provide. Before this crisis, we were looking at a major shortage of mental health workers. There is no way our system has the capacity to deal with all of the people who will need help. 

About two months ago, I attended a hearing on mental illness and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the things I asked some of our panelists was whether or not there had been an increase in suicides. The answer: Not yet. Emphasis on yet. They were worried that, as the economic toll continues, you’d have a lot of people who would be more likely to die by suicide. This study furthers my concern there.

What can we do? Well, if you believe that economics and mental health are connected – and I do – that means we need to support people in their times of need and provide generous economic supports to get them through this crisis. That means working to prevent evictions and foreclosures. To extend unemployment assistance. To throw money at small businesses in order to keep them open.

This is a catastrophe in the making, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A strong government can stop the economic damage and can abate this crisis, and I don’t think it’s too late. But that’s what we need to get us through the physical, economic, and mental health disaster that we are currently experiencing.