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Since COVID-19, 21% of American adults live with a mental health disorder—how it varies by age

Judy Campbell

June 7, 2022


March 11, 2022 marked the second anniversary of the World Health Organization’s official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a WHO survey of 130 countries, COVID-19’s devastating impacts included the disruption of mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data further shows that more than one in every five American adults experienced mental illness in 2020.

Sidecar Health looked at how the prevalence of mental health disorders breaks down by age, citing SAMHSA data aggregating Q1 and Q4 survey data on mental health in 2020 and survey data specifically focused on the pandemic’s impacts on mental health.

Mental illnesses include different conditions with varying degrees of severity and can be broken down into two broad categories: any mental illness (AMI), encompassing all recognized mental illnesses; and serious mental illness, a more severe subset of AMI that interferes with or limits activities of daily living.

Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against those experiencing mental illness have created significant barriers to care. According to data from Mental Health America, fewer than half of those with mental health disorders in 2020 received treatment, often due to fear of judgment by family, friends, or co-workers. Keep reading to see how the severity of mental illness impacted three age groups among American adults.

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Adults aged 18-25

– People living with mental health disorders: 30.6%

— 29.3% of adults 18-20

— 31.3% of adults 21-25

– Those reporting a significant negative impact on mental health due to the pandemic:

— Among all respondents: 23.2%

— Those with any mental health disorder: 48.5%

— Those with serious mental health disorders: 52.7%

The American Psychological Association’s 2020 Stress in America survey revealed the U.S. is facing a national mental health crisis that requires strategic problem solving.

Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) met additional challenges in 2020, from entering a workforce while the economy was in a freefall due to a lack of in-person contact with co-workers, classmates, and loved ones. This age group is already at high risk for mental illness due to ongoing uncertainties and high levels of stress.

Online surveys conducted in April of 2020 with 195 college students in Texas found the leading stressor during the pandemic was a concern for their health and the health of their loved ones. Beyond issues of mental health, Gen Z adults also reported negative health impacts due to the pandemic, including poor sleeping patterns, poor diets, and weight fluctuation.

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Adults aged 26-49

– People living with mental health disorder: 25.3%

— 27.4% of adults 26-29

— 29.0% of adults 30-34

— 25.2% of adults 35-39

— 22.3% of adults 40-44

— 22.2% of adults 45-49

– Those reporting a significant negative impact on mental health due to the pandemic:

— Among all respondents: 21.4%

— Those with any mental health disorder: 45.5%

— Those with serious mental health disorders: 54.6%

According to a 2019 report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), there was a 47% increase in major depression diagnoses in millennials pre-pandemic. By October of 2020, the BCBSA reported an increase in certain behaviors including alcohol consumption (34% increase), smoking (20% increase), vaping (17% increase), and non-medicinal drug use (16% increase).

Anxiety in 2022 impacts the daily lives of more than half of millennials, according to a February 2022 study by Ramsey Solutions for The State of Mental Health.

Dragana Gordic // Shutterstock

Adults aged 50+

– People living with mental health disorder: 14.5%

— 19.2% of adults 50-54

— 17.8% of adults 55-59

— 13.5% of adults 60-64

— 11.8% of adults 65 or older

– Those reporting a significant negative impact on mental health due to the pandemic:

— Among all respondents: 14.2%

— Those with any mental health disorder: 43%

— Those with serious mental health disorders: Data not sufficient

During the first six months of the pandemic, workers 55+ years old were 17% more likely to get laid off than their younger colleagues. This put a burden on financial security during retirement and the loss of benefits necessary during this stage of life.

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