Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of people among various age groups and demographic categories, according to a study released Thursday by Loyola Marymount University.

“We have to confront the mental health toll head-on in order to make social distancing a more sustainable behavior for people to keep up,” said Brett Marroquin, an assistant professor of psychology at LMU who conducted the research with Vera Vine, a postdoctoral fellow of the University of Pittsburgh. “We already know that social relationships are important for mental health, and our findings suggest this is a challenge during the pandemic.”

Marroquin and his team assessed 435 people from 46 states in March at a time when the pandemic was escalating and many stay-at-home orders were going into effect, and examined how social distancing behaviors have contributed to spikes in symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, intrusive thoughts, insomnia and acute stress.

Study participants with the lowest annual household income — less than $20,000 — had significantly higher levels of depression than all of the other income categories and those with an income between $20,000 and $39,999 were significantly higher than those in the highest bracket of $120,000 or more, according to the study, which was published in the November issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.

Women reported more intrusive thoughts, marginally more generalized anxiety disorder symptoms and higher social support, according to the study.

A sub-sample of 118 people surveyed earlier in the outbreak showed increases in depression and generalized anxiety disorder between February and March, with personal distancing behaviors associated with the increases, according to researchers.

Marroquin noted that public health officials need to take mental health seriously because social distancing is so important to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Researchers collected additional data in July and plan to conduct follow-up assessments in the fall.

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