Mental Health Conditions, Substance Use Heightened in Young Adults Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

November 27, 2020
Gabrielle Ientile, Assistant Editor

A recent study showed “alarming” rates of reported loneliness, anxiety, depression, and substance use in young adults during COVID-19.

Results of a recent study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs showed that an alarming number of young adult respondents reported significant loneliness, depressive symptoms, and moderate-to-severe anxiety during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Researchers used a national survey to evaluate the effect the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is having on young adults. In light of coinciding loneliness and addiction epidemics in the United States, the survey has revealed concerning trends in this demographic related to mental health and substance use amid the pandemic.

“Even before imposed COVID-19 social restrictions, loneliness had been gaining attention as a public health crisis,” the researchers wrote in the study. However, few studies have focused on documenting and understanding loneliness and issues related to mental health wellbeing in young adults.

Investigators employed a web-based survey, approved by the University of Miami Institutional Review Board, that recruited participants on social media and networking sites—Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—via an anonymous link to the Qualtrics 2020 survey. Respondents also gained access through US college and university newsletters and student association Facebook pages.

Between April 22 and May 11, 2020, 1008 respondents 18 to 35 years of age completed the survey, which evaluated mental health through various mechanisms. Investigators determined loneliness through the UCLA Loneliness Scale; substance use behaviors through the WHO’s Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) and the Drug Abuse Screening Test (DAST-10); and anxiety and depression through the Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD-7) Questionnaire and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale (CES-D-10).

Demographic analysis showed a median age of 28 years, with 86% of respondents older than 23 years. Ninety-one percent were not enrolled in school, with 63% living with 2 or 3 people at the time of the survey. The majority of respondents reported their race as white (76%); 10% were Black, and 24% were Hispanic.

The mean score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale was 49.54. Forty-nine percent of participants reported scores above 50 in the 20-80 scale. AUDIT ranks respondents according to a 0-40 scale, where a score higher than 15 is likely to indicate high-risk drinking and alcohol dependence. Thirty percent of respondents reported a score above 16 and 19% reported binge drinking at least weekly.

Of the 22% of young adults included in the study who reported using drugs, 38% showed scores indicating substantial or severe drug use. Sixty-two percent of respondents ranked as showing either moderate (45%) or severe (19%) anxiety. Seventy-nine percent indicated the presence of significant depressive symptoms, according to the CES-D analysis.

Analyses showed that most participants who reported an increase in feeling lonely also reported more alcohol use (58%), drug use (56%), anxiety (76%), and depression (78%).

“These results reveal heightened levels compared to previously documented prevalence of loneliness, anxiety, and depression,” the study authors wrote.

Findings reiterate the demand for attention to the loneliness epidemic in the US and underscore the importance of prevention and intervention on young adults,” investigators added.

References

1. Horigian VE, Schmidt RD, Feaster DJ. Loneliness, mental health, and substance use among US young adults during COVID-19. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs; October 28, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2020.1836435.