The COVID-19 pandemic may not be as damaging to people’s mental health as previously thought, a new study suggests. Overall, the pandemic led to minimal changes in depression, anxiety and mental health symptoms in the general population compared to pre-pandemic times. (Also Read: 7 Morning Habits That Help Fight Depression)
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, was led by researchers at McGill University in Canada and included data from 137 other studies from around the world.
Same *** different year
Brett Thumbs, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and lead author of the study, said he was concerned that claims of a ‘mental health tsunami’ during the pandemic were not backed up by sufficient data.
‘There was no comparison between how people were before and during the pandemic. People were saying 30% of people had mental health problems during the pandemic, but we see numbers like this all the time,” Thumbs told DW.
Thumbs and a team of researchers looked for all the studies they could find that tracked mental health before the pandemic and continued to track it in the same participants.
Their study included data from more than 30 countries, mostly middle- to high-income countries. It did not distinguish between those who did or did not get COVID-19.
‘We found either no change or very little change for anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms in the general population. We can be very confident that there was no mental health crisis,’ said Thumbs.
Victims ‘lost in data’ during pandemic
However, some experts have argued that the Thumbs study missed the fact that some people experienced worsening mental health symptoms during the pandemic.
‘Because this is population-level data, the paper does not represent the problems faced by many people during the pandemic. For example, it is not different [between] who did not have Covid or prolonged Covid,’ said Ziad Al-Ali, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Al-Ali said there are studies that show that people who have had repeated exposure to COVID, or people who have experienced COVID for a long time, had significantly worse mental health symptoms than people who did not have COVID.
By pooling data from everyone in the population, Al-Ali said, significant mental health changes occurred in those individuals, while others were overlooked.
Women experienced mild deterioration in mental health
The study found that women experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms during the pandemic, but only to a “minimal to small degree”.
‘Because we’ve found small changes in population levels, we can be really confident [that] Women were experiencing somewhat worse mental health than men. It’s relatable,” Thumbs said.
Depressive symptoms also worsened to a lesser extent in older adults, university students, parents, and people who self-identified as sexual or gender minority groups.
But with the data collected, what do “minimum” changes in depression look like for a person? According to Thumbs, it’s a mixed bag.
‘We assessed the symptom changes based on a regular questionnaire, so maybe it’s enough that some people will notice and feel it, but others won’t. We may have even captured small differences that a person might not be aware of,’ said Thumbs.
Mental health is personal
The researchers accepted their study paper and concluded that “certain population groups experience mental health problems that differ from the general population or other groups.”
They called on governments to ensure that more mental health support is available to address people’s needs.
‘There were people who suffered, but our society and our communities did so many wonderful things to help each other cope. I think that part of the story got lost,” Thumbs said.
Al-Ali had a less positive view and was cautious about interpreting too much from the data, saying, “It could lead to some people ignoring those who have real problems during the pandemic.”
One thing is for sure: be it before, during or after the pandemic, mental health is a personal matter.
Edited by: Zulfiqar Abbani