BMJ recently published a study after analyzing several studies on mental health before and during the pandemic. Their findings may or may not surprise you.
The studies reviewed only the mental health outcomes for general mental health, anxiety, and depression symptoms. The analysis focused on two periods from pre-pandemic, January 1, 2018, to December 31, 2019, when China first reported Covid-19 to the World Health Organization, and compared those periods to information collected from January 1, 2020, and on.
Importantly, most of the studies were from high-income (77%) or upper-middle-income (20%) countries, 2% were from lower-middle-income countries, and none were from low-income countries.
General Mental Health
- Estimated change for the general population was minimal and not statistically significant
- Statistically significant, but quite small, worsening of general mental health for women.
- Small to medium worsening for parents
- Estimated change was not statistically significant and close to zero
- Worsened by small amounts among women or female participants and parents
- Increased by a minimal amount
- Increased by a minimal amount for women or female participants, older adults, and university students
- Increased by a minimal amount for people who identified as belonging to a sexual or gender minority
Breakdown of the Mental Health Symptom Findings
The study reports finding minimal changes in mental health when looking at the general population, with the most significant change in mental health for women or female participants, parents, older adults, university students, and sexual or gender minority groups. Women and female participants were the only groups that experienced a worsening of symptoms across general mental health, anxiety, and depression symptoms.
Dr. Les Kertay, Axiom Medical’s Senior Vice President for Behavioral Health, shares, “There was a small but measurable worsening of general mental health, symptoms of depression, and anxiety for women and parents. That makes a lot of sense given what we saw in employment patterns (greater numbers of women left the workforce during the pandemic, greater numbers of women are in healthcare professions, and parents were confronted with having their children school from home). Even small differences are important and shouldn’t be ignored – but from a policy perspective, it makes more sense to target impacted populations than those who weren’t impacted.”
The study noted a lack of evidence for a large-scale decline in mental health, pointing to people being more resilient. Dr. Kertay agrees that people tend to be more resilient than we give them credit for.
BMJ’s findings suggest that suicide generally declines during periods of societal conflict. Dr. Kertay points out that “suicide rates in the general population decline by a small degree.”
Dr. Kertay notes, “The research on the prevalence of mental health concerns is plagued by over-reliance on screening measures, which have been shown to overestimate compared to the (very few) studies that have used diagnostic interviews. These studies’ various methods and sampling also complicate our full understanding.”
He states, “The ‘tsunami’ of new mental health problems attributed to the pandemic was largely an overreaction of the media and other factors, rather than an actual substantial rise in mental health condition.”
That said, it does not mean we don’t have a problem. “The pandemic shone a light on an already existing problem. The best estimate of depressive disorders in studies that have used diagnostic interviews instead of screening or self-report put the prevalence at 18% – meaning that nearly 1 in 5 people in the US qualify for a diagnosable depressive disorder, says Dr. Kertay.”
In addition, he notes, “Other work has shown that the number of people who qualify for a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime, based on a diagnostic interview, is nearly half the population. The pandemic didn’t substantially worsen the problem, but the numbers were terrible, to begin with. So, shining a light on that problem is good because we can perhaps do more to address problems with access to care, stigma, etc.”
From the study and others like it, we see areas of improvement for measuring, discussing, and treating mental health symptoms:
- Symptoms should be tracked at a population level.
- Increased access to careful screening and diagnosis.
- Provide support and resources to those who do and don’t need treatment.
- Provide therapy and treatment for those who need it.
- Include mental health in the conversation of general health.
Here at Axiom Medical, we hit all those marks. We are the only company with a fully integrated physical + mental health solution. We deliver the difference by providing proactive intervention, population analytics, and data insights, delivering a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce.
Charli Pedersen works for Axiom Medical as their Content Marketing Specialist. She has her bachelor’s degree in English, Professional and Technical Writing and previous experience with creating content for businesses and non-profit organizations.