Newswise — The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on many people’s lives. Emerging adults may have been particular impacted, given their transition from adolescence to adulthood during such a time of upheaval, with their educational and career aspirations thrown into disarray. A new study has found that the risk for depression tripled among young people – particularly younger women – during the pandemic, and that this risk persisted into 2021.

These results and others will be shared at the 45th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Orlando, Florida.

“As researchers focused on adolescent development, we wanted to find out how older adolescents and young adults were coping with the pandemic,” said Fiona C Baker, director of the Human Sleep Research Program and Center for Health Sciences at SRI International, California. “We were able to take advantage of a longitudinal study called the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence (NCANDA), which has been following adolescents and emerging adults in the U.S. since 2012/2013. When the pandemic hit, participants had already been tracked for seven to eight years. This meant we could then look at how the pandemic changed behaviors such as alcohol use, mood, sleep, etc.”

Baker and her colleagues analyzed data from 526 NCANDA study participants who completed surveys at three timepoints during the pandemic: June 2020, December 2020, and June 2021. They looked for changes in alcohol use and depressive symptoms from before to during COVID-19, and also examined whether pre-pandemic alcohol-use frequency and sleep duration influenced pandemic depressive symptoms.

“Our results definitely indicate that emerging adults have been vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic,” said Baker. “Possibly, they are more vulnerable than older adults because they are transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood, in the midst of their education, making career decisions or starting new jobs, with aspirations for the future.” Baker will share these results at the RSA meeting on 29 June 2022.

She listed several specific findings: One, while fewer participants reported previous-month drinking in June 2020 than pre-pandemic drinking, those who did, drank on more days. Two, frequent alcohol use and short sleep duration before COVID-19 predicted greater increase in COVID-19 depressive symptoms. Three, young women in particular developed depressive symptoms, which were sustained during the first year of the pandemic.

“Our findings that young women are more vulnerable to the negative effects of the pandemic on mood are similar to other studies, said Baker. “It is thought that women respond differently to stress compared to men, although the underlying causes of this are still to be determined. Even during non-pandemic times, a mix of biology, social roles, society, and individual factors contribute to a higher risk of depression among females.”

Baker hopes that this research into depression can help develop tools to support emerging adults who are coping with negative feelings and stressors, like the pandemic. “For example, given that we found that modifiable behaviors – such as alcohol use and sleep – were predictors of risk for depression, we could address these behaviors by promoting adequate sleep and alcohol management to help protect against depression.”