A Longitudinal Study of Predictors of Serious Psychological Distress During COVID-19 Pandemic

Background

The prevalence of serious psychological distress (SPD) was elevated during the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA, but the relationships of SPD during the pandemic with pre-pandemic SPD, pre-pandemic socioeconomic status, and pandemic-related social stressors remain unexamined.

Methods

A probability-based sample (N=1751) of the US population age 20 and over was followed prospectively from February 2019 (T1), with subsequent interviews in May 2020 (T2) and August 2020 (T3). Multinomial logistic regression was used to assess prospective relationships between T1 SPD with experiences of disruption of employment, health care, and childcare at T2. Binary logistic regression was then used to assess relationships of T1 SPD, and socioeconomic status and T2 pandemic-related stressors with T3 SPD.

Results

At T1, SPD was associated with age, race/ethnicity, and household income. SPD at T1 predicted disruption of employment (OR 4.5, 95% CI 1.4-3.8) and health care (OR 3.2, 95% CI 1.4-7.1) at T2. SPD at T1 (OR 10.2, 95% CI 4.5-23.3), low household income at T1 (OR 2.6, 95% CI 1.1-6.4), disruption of employment at T2 (OR 3.2, 95% CI 1.4-7.6), and disruption of healthcare at T2 (OR 3.3, 95% CI 1.5-7.2) were all significantly associated with elevated risk for SPD at T3.

Conclusions

Elevated risk for SPD during the COVID-19 pandemic is related to multiple psychological and social pathways that are likely to interact over the life course. Policies and interventions that target individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions as well as those experiencing persistent unemployment should be high priorities in the mental health response to the pandemic.

This report is part of the RAND external publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

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