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Bidirectional associations between depressive and anxiety symptoms and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic: dynamic panel models with fixed effects

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posted on 2022-01-06, 15:00 authored by Cillian P. McDowell, Jacob D. Meyer, Daniel W. Russell, Cassandra S. Brower, Jeni E. Lansing, Matthew P. Herring
Background: Understanding the direction and magnitude of mental health-loneliness associations across time is important to understand how best to prevent and treat mental health and loneliness. This study used weekly data collected over 8 weeks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to expand previous findings and using dynamic panel models with fixed effects which account for all time-invariant confounding and reverse causation. Methods: Prospective data on a convenience and snowball sample from all 50 US states and the District of Colombia (n = 2,361 with ≥2 responses, 63.8% female; 76% retention rate) were collected weekly via online survey at nine consecutive timepoints (April 3–June 3, 2020). Anxiety and depressive symptoms and loneliness were assessed at each timepoint and participants reported the COVID-19 containment strategies they were following. Dynamic panel models with fixed effects examined bidirectional associations between anxiety and depressive symptoms and loneliness, and associations of COVID-19 containment strategies with these outcomes. Results: Depressive symptoms were associated with small increases in both anxiety symptoms (β = 0.065, 95% CI = 0.022–0.109; p = 0.004) and loneliness (β = 0.019, 0.008–0.030; p = 0.001) at the subsequent timepoint. Anxiety symptoms were associated with a small subsequent increase in loneliness (β = 0.014, 0.003–0.025; p = 0.015) but not depressive symptoms (β = 0.025, −0.020–0.070; p = 0.281). Loneliness was strongly associated with subsequent increases in both depressive (β = 0.309, 0.159–0.459; p < 0.001) and anxiety (β = 0.301, 0.165–0.436; p < 0.001) symptoms. Compared to social distancing, adhering to stay-at-home orders or quarantining were not associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms or loneliness (both p ≥ 0.095). Conclusions: High loneliness may be a key risk factor for the development of future anxiety or depressive symptoms, underscoring the need to combat or prevent loneliness both throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 containment strategies were not associated with mental health, indicating that other factors may explain previous reports of mental health deterioration throughout the pandemic.


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Frontiers in Psychiatry;12, article 738892


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