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Identifying youths most at risk to COVID-19-related mental illness is essential for the development of effective targeted interventions.
To compare trajectories of mental health throughout the pandemic in youth with and without prior mental illness and identify those most at risk of COVID-19-related mental illness.
Data were collected from individuals aged 18–26 years (N = 669) from two existing cohorts: IMAGEN, a population-based cohort; and ESTRA/STRATIFY, clinical cohorts of individuals with pre-existing diagnoses of mental disorders. Repeated COVID-19 surveys and standardised mental health assessments were used to compare trajectories of mental health symptoms from before the pandemic through to the second lockdown.
Mental health trajectories differed significantly between cohorts. In the population cohort, depression and eating disorder symptoms increased by 33.9% (95% CI 31.78–36.57) and 15.6% (95% CI 15.39–15.68) during the pandemic, respectively. By contrast, these remained high over time in the clinical cohort. Conversely, trajectories of alcohol misuse were similar in both cohorts, decreasing continuously (a 15.2% decrease) during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic symptom severity predicted the observed mental health trajectories in the population cohort. Surprisingly, being relatively healthy predicted increases in depression and eating disorder symptoms and in body mass index. By contrast, those initially at higher risk for depression or eating disorders reported a lasting decrease.
Healthier young people may be at greater risk of developing depressive or eating disorder symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Targeted mental health interventions considering prior diagnostic risk may be warranted to help young people cope with the challenges of psychosocial stress and reduce the associated healthcare burden.
Sex-related differences in psychopathology are known phenomena, with externalizing and internalizing symptoms typically more common in boys and girls, respectively. However, the neural correlates of these sex-by-psychopathology interactions are underinvestigated, particularly in adolescence.
Participants were 14 years of age and part of the IMAGEN study, a large (N = 1526) community-based sample. To test for sex-by-psychopathology interactions in structural grey matter volume (GMV), we used whole-brain, voxel-wise neuroimaging analyses based on robust non-parametric methods. Psychopathological symptom data were derived from the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).
We found a sex-by-hyperactivity/inattention interaction in four brain clusters: right temporoparietal-opercular region (p < 0.01, Cohen's d = −0.24), bilateral anterior and mid-cingulum (p < 0.05, Cohen's d = −0.18), right cerebellum and fusiform (p < 0.05, Cohen's d = −0.20) and left frontal superior and middle gyri (p < 0.05, Cohen's d = −0.26). Higher symptoms of hyperactivity/inattention were associated with lower GMV in all four brain clusters in boys, and with higher GMV in the temporoparietal-opercular and cerebellar-fusiform clusters in girls.
Using a large, sex-balanced and community-based sample, our study lends support to the idea that externalizing symptoms of hyperactivity/inattention may be associated with different neural structures in male and female adolescents. The brain regions we report have been associated with a myriad of important cognitive functions, in particular, attention, cognitive and motor control, and timing, that are potentially relevant to understand the behavioural manifestations of hyperactive and inattentive symptoms. This study highlights the importance of considering sex in our efforts to uncover mechanisms underlying psychopathology during adolescence.
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