MS Patients Experienced New Depression, Anxiety During COVID-19

Individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) experienced depression, anxiety and loneliness —often reporting “new” symptoms — during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent research.

The social restrictions mandated by the pandemic have heightened concerns about exacerbations of pre-existing mental health issues and loneliness among vulnerable populations, such as those with MS, according to Lauren Strober, Ph.D., senior research scientist in the Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience at Kessler Foundation, lead author of the article published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

Even prior to the pandemic, mental health concerns and loneliness are common in persons with multiple sclerosis, previous research has found, Strober wrote. “The MS population experiences higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population, thought to be in part due to brain pathology due to MS (e.g., lesion load)….as well as adjustment factors associated with living with a chronic illness,” Strober said.

Strober and other Kessler Foundation researchers surveyed 142 individuals who had previously reported their emotional experiences in a national online survey.

The participants were primarily female (84%), Caucasian (85%) and married (64%).

Comparisons showed increases in depression, anxiety, and loneliness during the pandemic, with 54% reporting ‘new’ depression, and 33%, ‘new’ anxiety. Increases in loneliness affected all people with depression and anxiety, whether symptoms were new or pre-existing.

“We found that ‘new’ eepression and anxiety appeared to be related specifically to the pandemic,” Strober said in a news release. “Also, we saw no association with the person-specific factors commonly associated with depression and anxiety in individuals with MS — namely, personality and self-efficacy.”

Of the 41 people who reported current depression, 39% reported being depressed previously and 34% reported being depressed immediately prior to the pandemic. This is in comparison to 10% and 4%, respectively, of the 101 who were not presently experiencing depression

Similar findings were found for anxiety with 52% of those presently experiencing anxiety reporting anxiety historically or immediately prior to the pandemic. Among those not presently anxious, only 13% and 7% reported anxiety historically or immediately prior to the pandemic, respectively.

Clinicians need to be aware of the heterogenous nature of depression and anxiety in their patients with MS and approach treatment accordingly, Strober noted.

While improving self-efficacy is a common target for reducing depression and loneliness in MS, in this situation, individuals with “new” depression actually did not differ from the non-depressed and had greater self-efficacy than those with existing depression, Strober said.

“Individuals with new symptomatology will benefit from cognitive behavioral interventions that stress coping, positive mental health habits, and encouragement to connect with others despite the pandemic, while individuals with pre-existing symptoms may respond to those aimed at improving self-efficacy and other more fundamental factors of emotional distress,” she said.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Robert E. Leet & Clara Guthrie Patterson Trust.