Mental health crisis from Covid pandemic was minimal – study

  • By Philippa Roxby
  • Health reporter

image source, Getty Images

People’s overall mental health and anxiety symptoms have barely worsened during the pandemic, research shows.

Most people are resilient and have made the best of a difficult situation, it says.

The BMJ review analyzed 137 studies, most from high-income European and Asian countries.

Depression became slightly worse overall and among women, older people, students, and those belonging to sexual or gender minorities.

Other studies show that women have felt the impact of the pandemic more because of the work they do and the role they play in family life.

“At the population level, there is a high level of resilience during Covid-19,” say the Canadian researchers from institutions including McGill, Ottawa and Toronto universities.

“And changes in general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depressive symptoms were minimal to small.”

But the pandemic continues to affect societies around the world.

“The pandemic has affected the lives of many people – and some are now experiencing mental health problems for the first time,” the researchers say.

“Governments must continue to ensure that mental health support is available and meets the needs of the population.”

The review does not look at lower-income countries, nor does it focus specifically on children, young people and those with pre-existing problems, the groups most likely to be affected, experts say, and risks hiding important effects among disadvantaged groups.

“There is evidence from other studies of significant differences – some people’s mental health improves and others worsen,” said Dr Gemma Knowles, from King’s College London.

“This may indicate no overall increase – but this should not be interpreted to suggest that the pandemic has not had major negative effects among some groups.”

Other studies have shown that the pandemic has increased mental stress for certain groups, such as children, young people and parents in poverty.

One in six seven-16-year-olds and one in four 17-19-year-olds in England were likely to have a mental disorder in 2022, an online NHS survey found, which is more than in previous years.

Separate NHS figures show the number of children in contact with mental health services rose by nearly 30% between 2020-21 and 2021-22, to nearly one million.

Most affected by the pandemic are people who struggled with their mental health before Covid.

Dr Roman Rachka, who chairs the British Psychological Society’s clinical psychology division, said the full picture remains unclear and more studies are needed among people with health problems in deprived areas.

“We know that overstretched and underfunded mental health services have been unable to meet increasing demand in recent years,” he said.

Ollie Parker, from the charity YoungMinds, said the results of the study were “interesting” but differed from some recent research into young people’s mental health.

“We know that more and more young people are reaching out for help and can’t get it fast enough, and that many would say the pandemic has put extra strain on their mental health,” he said.

“Instead of focusing on the impact of the pandemic, we would like to see action on how to deal with the record number of young people being referred for extra support.”

The charity Mind said its local services were facing “increasing demand since the first lockdown” and the complexity of calls to its helpline had risen “significantly” during the pandemic.

“It is important to note that most of the studies in this review are from high-income European and Asian countries, so ignore the damage done to some less visible – but more disadvantaged – groups,” said Stephen Buckley , Chief Information Officer at Mind.

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