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What was the mental health toll of the pandemic?

A new study led by McGill University in Canada has found that, contrary to popular beliefs, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a relatively limited roll on the mental health of people around the world, suggesting that human resilience is stronger than usually thought. 

The experts reviewed data from 137 studies in various countries involving 134 cohorts of individuals from all over the world (75 percent adults and 25 percent children and adolescents). Since most of these studies were conducted in high- or middle-income countries, further research is needed to assess Covid-19’s impact on mental health in lower-income nations.

Surprisingly, the analysis revealed that, regardless of the dramatic stories circulating in the media and other outlets, changes in mental health caused by the pandemic were minimal – a finding that held true whether the studies covered the mental health of the population as a whole or that of specific groups, such as people of particular ages, gender, or with other pre-existent health conditions.

“Mental health in Covid-19 is much more nuanced than people have made it out to be,” said study senior author Brett Thombs, a professor of Psychiatry at McGill. “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.”

“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,” added lead author Ying Sun, a research coordinator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

While anxiety and suicide rates did not seem to increase in the general population during the pandemic, depression symptoms worsened by minimal to small amounts in older adults, university students, or people belonging to sexual or gender minority groups. Moreover, women often tended to experience a worsening of mental health symptoms, possibly due to 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 co-author Danielle Rice, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at McMaster University. “The Canadian federal and provincial governments along with governments elsewhere in the world have worked to increase access to mental health services during the pandemic, and should ensure that these services continue to be available.”

Further research is needed to examine mental health across different time periods in the pandemic, and to clarify what governments and health agencies can do to ensure that scientists have better-quality and more timely mental health data as the pandemic continues to affect many parts of the world.

The study is published in the journal BMJ.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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