Cohort studies have displayed mixed findings on changes in mental symptoms severity in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak started. Network approaches can provide additional insights by analyzing the connectivity of such symptoms. We assessed the network structure of mental symptoms in the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Health (ELSA-Brasil) in 3 waves: 2008-2010, 2017-2019, and 2020, and hypothesized that the 2020 network would present connectivity changes. We used the Clinical Interview Scheduled-Revised (CIS-R) questionnaire to evaluates the severity of 14 common mental symptoms. Networks were graphed using unregularized Gaussian models and compared using centrality and connectivity measures. The predictive power of centrality measures and individual symptoms were also estimated. Among 2011 participants (mean age: 62.1 years, 58% females), the pandemic symptom 2020 network displayed higher overall connectivity, especially among symptoms that were related to general worries, with increased local connectivity between general worries and worries about health, as well as between anxiety and phobia symptoms. There was no difference between 2008 and 2010 and 2017-2019 networks. According to the network theory of mental disorders, external factors could explain why the network structure became more densely connected in 2020 compared to previous observations. We speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic and its innumerous social, economical, and political consequences were prominent external factors driving such changes; although further assessments are warranted.
Keywords: COVID-19; Cohort study; Mental disorders; Network theory of disorders; Pandemic; Psychopathology.
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