Covid mental health impact not as great as first thought
Posted on the 20th March 2023
Covid-19 may not have taken as great a toll on the mental health of most people as earlier research indicated, a new study suggests.
A review of 137 studies published in the British Medical Journal led by researchers at McGill University in Canada has found the pandemic resulted in “minimal” changes in mental health symptoms among the general population.
Brett Thombs, a psychiatry professor at McGill University and senior author, said some of the public narrative around the mental health impacts of Covid-19 were based on “poor-quality studies and anecdotes”, which became “self-fulfilling prophecies”, adding that there was a need for more “rigorous science”.
However, some experts disputed this, warning such readings could obscure the impact on individual groups such as children, women, and people with low incomes or pre-existing mental health problems. They also said other robust studies had reached different conclusions.
The researchers at McGill said their findings were consistent with the largest study on suicide during the pandemic – which found no increase – and applied to most groups, including different ages, sexes, genders, and whether people had pre-existing conditions. Three-quarters of the research focused on adults, mostly from middle- and high-income countries.
However, they acknowledged that women had experienced worsening anxiety, depression or general mental health symptoms during the pandemic, possibly due to juggling more family responsibilities, because more of them work in health or social care, or, in some cases, due to domestic abuse.
The researchers further noted that depression symptoms had worsened by “minimal to small amounts” for older adults, university students, people who self-identified as belonging to a sexual or gender minority group, and parents.
Other research has suggested the mental health impact of the pandemic has been much more severe.
In 2021, researchers at the University of Queensland determined that anxiety and depression around the world increased dramatically in 2020.
In April 2021, the Royal College of Psychiatrists observed a sharp rise in mental ill health, and in February 2022 NHS leaders warned of a “second pandemic” of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and eating disorders.
Meanwhile, a newly published study led by the University of Calgary shows there was a sharp increase in emergency department visits for attempted suicide and suicidal ideation among children and adolescents in that same period of social isolation.
The numbers show a 22 per cent increase in children and adolescents going to emergency departments for suicide attempts and an 8 per cent increase in visits for suicidal ideation.