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New Study Examines Loneliness, Mental Health, and Substance Use among U.S. Young Adults during COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic converged with the loneliness and addiction epidemics in the United States this year, public health and mental health experts forecast increases in substance use and mental health conditions.

In a new study led by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, public health experts found that there have been elevated levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety, alcohol use, and drug use among young adults during COVID-19. The findings — published in the November issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs — underscore the importance of prevention and intervention to address these public health challenges.

“Our study highlights two main findings,” said study lead author Viviana E. Horigian, M.D., M.H.A., professor in the Miller School’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “The first is that loneliness and mental health conditions are elevated in young adults following the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. Second, that these increases in loneliness, depression, anxiety and substance abuse are related. We believe that addressing mental health and substance use problems in young adults, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, is imperative.”

Between April 22 and May 11, 2020, co-authors of the study recruited 1,008 participants aged 18 to 35 through social media to a one-time, online anonymous survey.

Findings showed that 49 percent of respondents reported loneliness, 80 percent reported significant depressive symptoms, 61 percent reported moderate to severe anxiety, and 30 percent disclosed harmful levels of drinking. The study also found that while 22 percent of the population reported using drugs, 38 percent reported severe drug use. Participants also reported significant increases across mental health and substance use symptoms during COVID-19.

Co-authors note that while direct impacts of COVID-19 could only be calculated with pre-pandemic assessments of these symptoms, estimates indicate elevated psychosocial symptoms and suggest that symptoms could have worsened since the start of the pandemic.

“Warnings of the mental health consequences of COVID-19 have been highlighted since the pandemic began,” said study co-author Renae D. Schmidt, a research associate in the Department of Public Health Sciences. “Our study confirms the need for this call to action.”

The study provides insight into the maladaptive symptoms and possible disorders among young adults who were affected by the restrictions put in place to control COVID-19 during the short nationwide stay-at-home order this year. The study also captured the co-occurrence of a myriad of clinical symptoms and behaviors among U.S. adults.

“The findings of this study are particularly important because life will continue to be affected by COVID-19 for some time,” said study senior author Daniel J. Feaster, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences. “The potential for lingering economic impact of the epidemic may further exacerbate these elevations in mental health symptoms and substance use.”

This research builds on previous work by Schmidt and Dr. Horigian on the association between loneliness, social connectedness, and its counterpart, social isolation, and drug overdose deaths. The idea came about during one advising session where Schmidt and Dr. Horigian reflected on overdose deaths and Dr. Horigian’s interest in their relationship with suicidality and isolation.

The study is one of 24 University of Miami COVID-19 related projects that received rapid response grants for areas of research that are providing information about the effects of the pandemic.

“These young adults are the future of our nation’s social fabric. Our study highlights high prevalence of loneliness and other mental health problems, directing attention to the importance of early identification and intervention,” said Dr. Horigian. “As we invest in developing the sense of cohesion and social connectedness in these generations, we can address resiliency in our communities at large.”

Tags: Dr. Daniel Feaster, Dr. Viviana Horigian, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Renae Schmidt