Community Mobility and Depressive Symptoms During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States

JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Sep 5;6(9):e2334945. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.34945.


Importance: Marked elevation in levels of depressive symptoms compared with historical norms have been described during the COVID-19 pandemic, and understanding the extent to which these are associated with diminished in-person social interaction could inform public health planning for future pandemics or other disasters.

Objective: To describe the association between living in a US county with diminished mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic and self-reported depressive symptoms, while accounting for potential local and state-level confounding factors.

Design, setting, and participants: This survey study used 18 waves of a nonprobability internet survey conducted in the United States between May 2020 and April 2022. Participants included respondents who were 18 years and older and lived in 1 of the 50 US states or Washington DC.

Main outcome and measure: Depressive symptoms measured by the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9); county-level community mobility estimates from mobile apps; COVID-19 policies at the US state level from the Oxford stringency index.

Results: The 192 271 survey respondents had a mean (SD) of age 43.1 (16.5) years, and 768 (0.4%) were American Indian or Alaska Native individuals, 11 448 (6.0%) were Asian individuals, 20 277 (10.5%) were Black individuals, 15 036 (7.8%) were Hispanic individuals, 1975 (1.0%) were Pacific Islander individuals, 138 702 (72.1%) were White individuals, and 4065 (2.1%) were individuals of another race. Additionally, 126 381 respondents (65.7%) identified as female and 65 890 (34.3%) as male. Mean (SD) depression severity by PHQ-9 was 7.2 (6.8). In a mixed-effects linear regression model, the mean county-level proportion of individuals not leaving home was associated with a greater level of depression symptoms (β, 2.58; 95% CI, 1.57-3.58) after adjustment for individual sociodemographic features. Results were similar after the inclusion in regression models of local COVID-19 activity, weather, and county-level economic features, and persisted after widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccination. They were attenuated by the inclusion of state-level pandemic restrictions. Two restrictions, mandatory mask-wearing in public (β, 0.23; 95% CI, 0.15-0.30) and policies cancelling public events (β, 0.37; 95% CI, 0.22-0.51), demonstrated modest independent associations with depressive symptom severity.

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, depressive symptoms were greater in locales and times with diminished community mobility. Strategies to understand the potential public health consequences of pandemic responses are needed.