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One in every eight adults developed depression for first time during epidemic: Research

by Pragati Singh

According to a recent large-scale study involving over 20,000 people, one in every eight older Canadians suffered their first bout of depression during the pandemic. For persons who had previously suffered with depression, the figures were much worse. By the fall of 2020, over half (45%) of this group had reported suffering depression.

The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health released a study of answers from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which collected information from participants for an average of seven years.

“The high rate of first-onset depression in 2020 highlights the substantial mental health toll that the pandemic caused in a formerly mentally healthy group of older adults.” says first author, Andie MacNeil, a recent Master of Social Work graduate from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW) and the Institute for Life Course and Aging, University of Toronto.

Although it is commonly known that depression among older adults rose during the pandemic, few studies have looked at the proportion of individuals who had the disease for the first time, as well as the proportion of people who had a history of the condition who relapsed.

“The devastation of the pandemic which upended so many aspects of daily life hit those with a history of depression particularly hard,” said co-author Sapriya Birk, a researcher formerly based in the Department of Neuroscience, Carleton University, Ottawa who is currently a medical student at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, adding, “Health professionals need to be vigilant in screening their patients who had mental health problems at an earlier time in their life.”

Low income and savings, loneliness, chronic pain, difficulties obtaining healthcare, a history of traumatic childhood experiences, and family conflict were all connected to depression among older persons during the pandemic, according to the study.

Prior to the pandemic, older persons who believed their income was insufficient to cover their fundamental requirements, as well as those with fewer savings, were more likely to suffer from depression.

“These findings highlight the disproportionate mental health burden borne by individuals with low socioeconomic status during the pandemic. Many of these socioeconomic risk factors may have been exacerbated by the economic precarity of the pandemic, particularly for individuals with fewer resources,” says co-author Margaret de Groh, scientific manager at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Individuals who experienced multiple characteristics of loneliness, such as feeling excluded, alone, and lonely, had a 4 to 5 times increased risk of both incident and recurring depression.

“It is not surprising that the lock-down was particularly difficult for older adults who were isolated and lonely during the pandemic. Social connections and social support are essential for well-being and mental health. Better support and outreach are needed for those who are isolated,” says co-author Ying Jiang, senior epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Older adults in chronic pain and those who had trouble accessing their usual healthcare, medication or treatments were more likely to be depressed during the autumn of 2020.

“This finding underlines the importance of streamlining service provision to ensure less disruption of medical services when future pandemics arise,” said co-author Professor Paul J. Villeneuve, Department of Neuroscience, Carleton University, Canada.

Individuals having a history of suffering as a youngster were more likely to be depressed in the autumn of 2020. When compared to their contemporaries, older persons who experienced family conflict during the pandemic had more than quadruple the risk of depression.

“Family conflict is a major stressor that can impact mental health even in the best of times. With the enforced close quarters of lockdown and the stress of the pandemic, there was a considerable strain on many family relationships. The ensuing conflict was a major risk for depression,” says senior author, Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson at the University of Toronto’s FIFSW and director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging.


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