Importance: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the policies to contain it have been a near ubiquitous exposure in the US with unknown effects on depression symptoms.
Objective: To estimate the prevalence of and risk factors associated with depression symptoms among US adults during vs before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Design, setting, and participants: This nationally representative survey study used 2 population-based surveys of US adults aged 18 or older. During COVID-19, estimates were derived from the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being study, conducted from March 31, 2020, to April 13, 2020. Before COVID-19 estimates were derived from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted from 2017 to 2018. Data were analyzed from April 15 to 20, 2020.
Exposures: The COVID-19 pandemic and outcomes associated with the measures to mitigate it.
Main outcomes and measures: Depression symptoms, defined using the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 cutoff of 10 or higher. Categories of depression symptoms were defined as none (score, 0-4), mild (score, 5-9), moderate (score, 10-14), moderately severe (score, 15-19), and severe (score, ≥20).
Results: A total of 1470 participants completed the COVID-19 and Life Stressors Impact on Mental Health and Well-being survey (completion rate, 64.3%), and after removing those with missing data, the final during-COVID-19 sample included 1441 participants (619 participants [43.0%] aged 18-39 years; 723 [50.2%] men; 933 [64.7%] non-Hispanic White). The pre-COVID-19 sample included 5065 participants (1704 participants [37.8%] aged 18-39 years; 2588 [51.4%] women; 1790 [62.9%] non-Hispanic White). Depression symptom prevalence was higher in every category during COVID-19 compared with before (mild: 24.6% [95% CI, 21.8%-27.7%] vs 16.2% [95% CI, 15.1%-17.4%]; moderate: 14.8% [95% CI, 12.6%-17.4%] vs 5.7% [95% CI, 4.8%-6.9%]; moderately severe: 7.9% [95% CI, 6.3%-9.8%] vs 2.1% [95% CI, 1.6%-2.8%]; severe: 5.1% [95% CI, 3.8%-6.9%] vs 0.7% [95% CI, 0.5%-0.9%]). Higher risk of depression symptoms during COVID-19 was associated with having lower income (odds ratio, 2.37 [95% CI, 1.26-4.43]), having less than $5000 in savings (odds ratio, 1.52 [95% CI, 1.02-2.26]), and exposure to more stressors (odds ratio, 3.05 [95% CI, 1.95-4.77]).
Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that prevalence of depression symptoms in the US was more than 3-fold higher during COVID-19 compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors (eg, job loss) reported a greater burden of depression symptoms. Post-COVID-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations.