The COVID-19 pandemic may not have been as damaging to people’s mental health as once thought, a new study has indicated. Overall, the pandemic caused minimal changes in depression, anxiety, and mental health symptoms among the general population compared to times before the pandemic.
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 s*** different year
Brett Thombs, a psychiatry professor at McGill University and lead author on the study, said he was concerned that claims of a “mental health tsunami” during the pandemic weren’t being backed up by sufficient data. ʺThere were no comparisons of how people were before and during the pandemic. People were saying 30 per cent of people were having mental health issues during the pandemic, but we see these kinds of numbers all the time,ʺ Thombs told DW.
Thombs 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 from middle to high-income countries. It did not differentiate between those who did or did not get COVID-19.
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ʺWe found either no changes or very minimal changes in the general population for anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms. We can be very confident that there wasn’t a mental health catastrophe,ʺ Thombs said.
Those who did suffer during pandemic ‘lost in the data’
However, some experts have argued the Thombs study misses the fact that some individuals did experience worsened mental health symptoms during the pandemic.
ʺBecause it’s population-level data, the paper doesn’t represent the problems that many individuals faced during the pandemic. For example, it didn’t differentiate [between] people who had COVID or long COVID from those who didn’t,ʺ said Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Al-Aly said there were studies that show people who had repeated exposure to COVID, or those who experienced long COVID, had significantly worse mental health symptoms than those who did not have COVID. Aggregating the data from everyone in the population, said Al-Aly, meant significant mental health changes in those individuals, among others, were overlooked.
Women experienced slight worsening of mental health
The study did find that women experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms during the pandemic, but only by “minimal to small amounts.” “Because we found small changes in the population level, we can be really confident [that] women were experiencing some worsening mental health than men. This is concerning,” said Thombs.
Depression symptoms also worsened minimally in older adults, university students, parents and people who self-identified as belonging to a sex or gender minority group.
But with data being aggregated, what do “minimal” changes in depression feel like for an individual? According to Thombs, it’s a mixed bag. ʺWe evaluated symptom changes based on regular questionnaires, so it is probably enough that some people would notice it and feel it, but others not. We might have also captured small differences that an individual might not even be aware of,ʺ said Thombs.
Mental health is personal
The researchers concluded their study paper by acknowledging that “some population groups experience mental health issues that differ from those of the general population or from other groups.” They also called on governments to ensure that more mental health support is available to respond to people’s needs.
ʺThere were people who suffered, but our societies and our communities did a lot of wonderful things to help each other cope. I think, that part of the story got lost,ʺ said Thombs.
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Al-Aly had a less positive outlook and was cautious about interpreting much from the data, “as it might cause some people to ignore those who had real problems during the pandemic.”
One thing is for sure: Whether it was before, during or after the pandemic, mental health is a personal affair.