The COVID-19 pandemic may not have been as damaging to people’s mental health as once thought, a new study has shown. Overall, the pandemic caused minimal changes in depression, anxiety, and mental health symptoms in the general population compared to pre-pandemic times. (Also read: 7 Morning Habits That Can Help Cope With Depression)
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, was led by researchers from McGill University in Canada and included data from 137 other studies from around the world.
Same bloody different year
Brett Thombs, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and the study’s lead author, said he was concerned that claims of a “mental tsunami” during the pandemic were not supported by sufficient data.
“There were no comparisons of how people were doing before and during the pandemic. People said 30 percent of people have mental health issues during the pandemic, but we see those kinds of numbers all the time,” 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 followed them up in the same participants.
Their study included data from more than 30 countries, mostly middle- and high-income countries. No distinction was made between those who got COVID-19 or not.
“We found either no or very minimal changes in the general population for anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms. We can be very confident that there was no mental health catastrophe,” Thombs said.
Those who suffered during the pandemic are ‘lost in the data’
However, some experts have argued that the Thombs study overlooks the fact that some individuals have experienced worsening mental health symptoms during the pandemic.
“Because it is population-level data, the paper does not represent the problems faced by many people during the pandemic. It didn’t make a difference, for example [between] People who have had COVID or long had COVID from those who haven’t,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Al-Aly said there are studies showing that people who have been repeatedly exposed to COVID, or those who have had COVID for a long time, had significantly worse mental health symptoms than those who did not have COVID.
Aggregating data from all individuals in the population, Al-Aly said, meant that significant changes in mental health among those individuals, among other things, were missed.
Women experienced a slight deterioration in mental health
The study found that women had higher levels of anxiety, depression and general mental health symptoms during the pandemic, but only in “minimal to small amounts.”
“Because we’ve seen small changes in the population, we can be really confident [that] Women experienced worsening mental health than men. That’s worrying,” Thombs said.
Depression symptoms also worsened minimally in older adults, college students, parents, and people who self-identified as members of a gender or minority gender group.
But how do “minimal” changes in depression feel in aggregated data for an individual? According to Thombs, it’s a mixed bag.
“We evaluated symptom changes based on regular questionnaires, so it’s probably enough that some people would notice and feel it, but others wouldn’t. We may also have caught small differences that a person may not even be aware of,” Thombs said.
Mental health is individual
The researchers concluded their study by stating that “some populations suffer from mental health problems that differ from those of the general population or other groups.”
They also called on governments to ensure that more mental health support is available to respond to people’s needs.
“There have been people who have suffered, but our societies and our communities have done many wonderful things to help each other cope. I think that part of the story has been lost,” Thombs said.
Al-Aly had a less positive attitude and was wary of interpreting much of the data “as it could cause some people to ignore those who have had real problems during the pandemic.”
One thing is certain: whether before, during or after the pandemic, mental health is a personal matter.
Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany
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