Initially, the pandemic had a significant and negative impact on our mental health. Here is some data that looked at self-reported levels of distress, anxiety, and depression across the USA in 2020:
As you can see, anxiety, depression and distress all spiked in March and April but remained relatively consistent from June 2020 to January 2021.
By September 2020, the average mental health of all people in the UK was still 2.2% worse than was predicted if there had been no pandemic. However, it wasn’t anything like the initial rate of people’s mental health being 7.9% worse at the start of the pandemic.
The pandemic has not impacted everyone’s mental health in the same way. If we look at the data of people surveyed in the UK in both April and September 2020, more than one in five people had their mental health significantly impacted at both time points. However, both women and younger people were affected more by COVID-19 than older men:
There is also some evidence that suggests that ethnic minorities and those with pre-existing mental health conditions were impacted more severely by the pandemic. Unfortunately, these impacts only further exaggerate many of the already existing mental health inequalities.
Lockdowns didn’t seem to worsen people’s mental health as severely as people imagined. Similar to what Daniel Gilbert said in his surprising book, ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, we can adjust more to whatever happens to us the longer it goes on. If something positive happens to us, we imagine that we will feel way better for way longer. But eventually, we get used to it, and our happiness levels return close to what they initially were. On the other hand, if something terrible happens to us, we imagine it will impact our mental health way worse and for way longer than it typically does. By June 2020, many people had already found their new equilibrium.
By comparing internet searches before and during lockdowns, Google searches increased the most substantially for boredom. Statistically significant increases also occurred for loneliness, worry and sadness. Other studies had also found increased searches for psychological stress, fear and death before lockdowns started. These searches then stabilised at the start of the lockdowns before reducing as the lockdowns continued.
Another finding that may surprise many people is that searches fell for divorce and suicide once countries imposed lockdowns.
I’m not sure if this is true, but I have heard that suicide rates also decrease during wars. So even though many people feared that lockdowns would increase suicidal ideation, I think that sometimes wars and pandemics give us a reason to feel sad. stressed or worried. Understanding why people feel the way they do and why they have to do what they are doing gives them insight and meaning and hope that things will get better in the future. Which can reduce the risk that someone will want to die by suicide instead of increasing it.
Possible future mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic
Although most countries are now out of their most severe lockdowns and many people are returning to a new sense of normalcy, we are not entirely in the clear yet.
The following graph by Banks, Fancourt and Xu in Chapter Five of the 2021 World Happiness Report indicates that we are now in phases three and four:
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on more awareness of the need for mental health treatment worldwide.
However, there is still insufficient mental health support in many places. One of the latest figures I saw from the World Health Organisation suggested that somewhere between 75 and 95% of people in need of mental health services in low- and middle-income countries cannot access adequate mental health support.
Even where I was working in Melbourne, Australia, in 2020, there was a shortage of psychologists who could take on new clients because the demand for mental health services was so high.
Therefore, countries need to find new ways to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments and support. It is especially true for disadvantaged or discriminated against groups, as they are likely most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are still not fully known. People have died, jobs have gone, businesses have closed, products have become harder to find or more expensive. Inflation and interest rates may have to increase to keep up with the printing of money and the countries’ spending during the pandemic so far.
There are lots of uncertain things about the future. Each of these things may come with potentially negative mental health impacts too. I am probably less cynical and more hopeful than the graph above shows about how people respond over time, but no one can fully predict what lies ahead.
Dr Damon Ashworth