A new review of 137 studies from around the world has found that, despite dramatic stories about COVID-19's impact on mental health, the psychological fallout from the pandemic has been less intense than thought.
“Mental health in COVID-19 is much more nuanced than people have made it out to be,” said senior study author Brett Thombs, a Canada Research Chair and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.
“Claims that the mental health of most people has deteriorated significantly during the pandemic have been based primarily on individual studies that are ‘snapshots' of a particular situation, in a particular place, at a particular time," Thombs said in a university news release. "They typically don't involve any long-term comparison with what had existed before or came after.”
About 75% of study participants in the studies reviewed were adults and 25% were children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19.
The mental health changes were minimal, researchers found, whether the studies covered the mental health of the population as a whole or that of specific groups.
“This is by far the most comprehensive study on COVID-19 mental health in the world, and it shows that, in general, people have been much more resilient than many have assumed,” said study first author Ying Sun, a research coordinator from the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.
The pandemic has, however, had a disproportionate effect on women, according to the study.
Some women experienced a worsening of symptoms, including anxiety, depression or general mental health, possibly because of their multiple family responsibilities, working in health care or elder care or, in some cases, family violence.
“This is concerning and suggests that some women, as well as some people in other groups, have experienced changes for the worse in their mental health and will need ongoing access to mental health support,” said study co-author Danielle Rice, an assistant professor at McMaster University and St. Joseph's Hospital, both in Hamilton, Ontario.
Among the findings were that in general population studies, no changes were found for general mental health or anxiety symptoms.
Depression symptoms worsened by minimal to small amounts for older adults, college students and people who identified as belonging to a sexual or gender minority group.
General mental health and anxiety symptoms worsened for parents, although these results were based on a small number of studies and participants.
The team is continuing to update the findings as research accumulates. They're also looking into how governments and health agencies may be able to ensure researchers have access to more timely mental health data going forward.
“Our findings underline the importance of doing rigorous science -- otherwise, our expectations and assumptions, together with poor-quality studies and anecdotes, can become self-fulfilling prophecies,” Thombs said.
The findings were published March 8 in the BMJ.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on mental health during the pandemic.
SOURCE: McGill University, news release, March 8, 2023