Since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Psychotherapy and Biopsychosocial Health has been investigating the population's mental health. Already in April, June and September, an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety or sleep problems became apparent. A recent study, sponsored by the "Österreichischer Bundesverband für Psychotherapie" (Austrian Federal Association for Psychotherapy) shows a recurrent deterioration around the turn of the year.

In the course of the press conference on 27 January 2021, study author Prof Christoph Pieh, Head of the Department of Psychotherapy and Biopsychosocial Health, and Peter Stippl, the President of  the "Österreichischer Bundesverband für Psychotherapie" (ÖBVP), presented the latest study results, according to which, about a quarter of the population (26 percent) suffers from depressive symptoms, 23 percent from anxiety symptoms and 18 percent from sleep disorders. The study conducted around the turn of the year includes a representative population sample of about 1500 people. "Since the last survey in September, there has been another significant deterioration in mental health. These results are alarming," says study author Christoph Pieh.

Particularly burdened are young adults

The group of young people between the ages of 18 and 24, who have always been the most severely affected in previous studies, is seriously affected. Here, there was a sharp increase from around 30 percent to 50 percent. Furthermore, the impact on women, the unemployed and single persons, among others, is particularly high. This also reflects in a significant decline in the quality of life, which has fallen by around one-fifth compared to the 2019 survey: An exception is the group of over 65. As in previous studies proven they are coming through the crisis best. People living in a relationship, embedded in a good social environment and regularly taking part in sports are comparatively less burdened.

Different triggers

The causes of the rise in psychological problems are undoubtedly diverse and vary greatly from individual to individual. In addition to concerns about one's own health, fears about the future, financial worries, job loss or loneliness can play a role. "Alongside the pandemic itself, difficulties regarding the economic situation, consequences and containment measures are experienced as especially stressful. In contrast, helpful factors experienced include the family or social environment, stress management, sports or other hobbies," Pieh adds. Apart from the length of the pandemic, the surveying period around Christmas and the turn of the year is also likely to be a factor.

Cases of severe depression increased tenfold

"The trend is alarming. A quarter of the population now suffers from depressive symptoms, and among young adults as many as half, compared with less than five percent in 2019," Pieh reports. Most evidently there has been a change in severe depressive cases, which have increased tenfold since last year. "It seems that the previous measures are not enough to get a grip on mental stress. This requires a new thinking on many levels," says ÖBVP President Peter Stippl.

Taking psychological stress seriously

In case the problems get too big, however, help should be sought. "Especially in severe cases, professional help is usually necessary," says study author Christoph Pieh. "The significant increase highlights the psychological impact of the pandemic and calls for rapid help that is specifically adapted to the current situation," Pieh advises.

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