Covid-19 may not have taken as great a toll on the mental health of most people as earlier research has indicated, a new study suggests.
The pandemic resulted in “minimal” changes in mental health symptoms among the general population, according to a review of 137 studies from around the world led by researchers at McGill University in Canada, and published in the British Medical Journal.
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.
“Mental health in Covid-19 is much more nuanced than people have made it out to be.
“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. They typically don’t involve any long-term comparison with what had existed before or came after.”
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, or because more 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.
The team concluded that governments and health agencies need to produce better quality and more timely mental health data to better target resources, and that governments should continue to properly fund services, especially for the groups worst affected by the pandemic.
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, while 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.
Commenting on the McGill study, Gemma Knowles, from the Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London, said the findings echoed other research, including her own, showing that some people’s mental health improved and others’ deteriorated during the pandemic, which could mean no overall increase.
She added that the study, which takes a broad view and includes limited analyses broken down by subgrouping, “risks obscuring important effects among the most affected and disadvantaged groups and, from that, obscuring possible widening of inequalities in mental distress that occurred because of the pandemic”.
Roman Raczka, chair of the British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, agreed: “We do not yet have the full picture, and further studies are needed into the impact of the pandemic on groups experiencing longstanding social and health inequities. We do know that overstretched and underfunded mental health services have been unable to meet soaring demand in recent years. It is vital that the government adequately funds services to deliver the support that is needed.”
But Prof Peter Tyrer, emeritus professor in community psychiatry, Imperial College London, stressed that the McGill work was “of good quality and reflects much of what we now know”.
He agreed with the researchers’ conclusion that the pandemic had a similar positive effect on resilience to wars because “social cohesion, despite the handicaps of lockdown and social distancing, improves when there is a common enemy”.