When the COVID-19 pandemic was first announced by the World Health Organization earlier this year, few people imagined the impact it would have on our lives all these months later – with no signs of improvement coming any time soon. Every day people are continuing to struggle with this new reality and many who were coping at first, are finding it more difficult as the pandemic stretches on. It might not be surprising to learn that new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 3 times the number of people are now reporting symptoms of depression, ranging from mild to severe, compared to before the pandemic.

As if this wasn't bad enough, researchers at the University of Toronto, in Canada, found that people who were feeling symptoms of anxiety and depression were also more likely to delay medical care. In fact, they were twice as likely to avoid medical care than those who did not have anxiety or depression.

There had been news of emergency rooms reporting they were seeing fewer patients with heart attacks, strokes, and hyperglycemic crises – abnormally high blood glucose (sugar) among people with diabetes. Visits for other health issues also dropped significantly, as much as 60%. The researchers wanted to know if the rising levels of depression and anxiety had a role in this.

They gathered the data from a weekly survey sent out by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asks participants about the social and economic impacts caused by COVID-19. Questions asked if the participants:

  • Felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge”
  • If they weren’t able to “ stop or control worrying”
  • If they had “little interest or pleasure in doing things”
  • If they had been “feeling down, depressed, or hopeless”

Those who felt more “nervous, anxious or on edge” were more likely to avoid medical treatment, but broadly, those reporting some or all of the symptoms were likely to delay care.

"Patients with chronic medical conditions or new symptoms that they are concerned about need to continue to seek medical advice," said co-author Jason M. Nagata, MD, said in a press release. "As the pandemic continues, it remains vitally important that the public have accurate and updated information on the risks and benefits of seeking medical care." Dr. Nagata is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco's Department of Pediatrics.

According to a report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[P]ersons experiencing signs or symptoms of serious illness, such as severe chest pain, sudden or partial loss of motor function, altered mental state, signs of extreme hyperglycemia, or other life-threatening issues, should seek immediate emergency care, regardless of the pandemic.” In other words, if you have any reason to suspect you need medical care, seek help as soon as possible.

Routine care is also important though, to cut down on the number of urgent issues that may have been caught early. The CDC suggests using telemedicine or email to avoid a trip for routine care. But, emergencies are emergencies, even during the pandemic.

If you find yourself struggling, you’re not alone. There is help. If reaching out to friends and family isn’t an option, there are state help lines and a national helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357), suicide prevention helpline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and disaster distress helpline 1-800-985-5990. Ask for help. It’s out there.