Is Mental Health Really Getting Worse During the Pandemic?

For some, a quieter life is a less stressed life.

Posted Jan 26, 2021

When it comes to mental health during the pandemic, a single portrait of an entire population is likely hiding some surprising trends.

First, the bad news. A large scale analysis of data from England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People survey found a 50% increase in the percentage of children reporting mental health problems when assessed in July 2020. More than a quarter of children aged 5-16 said they were experiencing disrupted sleep. About one in twenty younger children said they felt lonely, while one in seven teens said they felt the same. Finally, almost one in five children said they felt fearful leaving the house during the pandemic.

All of these numbers reflect an uneven distribution in the data. Youngsters who reported more mental health problems before the pandemic were those most likely to be anxious and depressed during the pandemic, with young women being particularly badly affected.

For adults, there is evidence that parents have become the most stressed, which is no surprise given that so many of the disruptions associated with the pandemic have a multiplier effect when you consider the challenges of keeping little ones safe and amused at home. Those who have lost their jobs are another group at particular risk, though it is unclear whether countries with very strong social programs that have prevented people from experiencing extreme poverty during the pandemic are preventing mental health problems among adults better than countries without such programs. Canada, for example, provided immediate support after the pandemic started of $1500USD/month ($2,000CDN) to any individual who was unemployed but had been employed before the pandemic (students were excluded).  

As bad as the mental health numbers sound, they are not an entirely fair portrait of what’s really going on. First, the number of people reporting worse mental health is actually a surprisingly small percentage of the overall population in the UK (there is no reason to think the trends would be much different in the US or Canada). Second, those who were already predisposed to mental health problems are the people being most affected by the lockdowns. And third, most of the data was collected early in the pandemic, so it is unclear what happened as time and restrictions wore on.

There is another trend in the data which is particularly intriguing. Some studies, including those in England, have actually documented little or no change in young people’s mental health during the pandemic. And a very large online study of more than 36,000 adults over a 20-week period starting in March 2020 found that rates of both depression and anxiety decreased despite expectations that they would go in the opposite direction.

How can we explain these patterns? My suspicion, from my own research and clinical work, is that the impact of the pandemic is very different for people with different life circumstances. Government policies may actually be improving the financial security of some individuals, with support programs providing a better living wage than the low wages paid in some industries. Second, for many of us, not having to commute, or rush to take children to endless activities may be exactly the mental health holiday we needed but refused to give ourselves. Third, there is plenty of emerging evidence that online communities and online activity is a good substitute for face-to-face interaction (though I will admit I’m getting a bit tired of online meetings).

And finally, as a clinician, I’ve noticed that there are lots of clients who are more successfully connecting with their therapists online than they did in person. Teenagers, especially, seem to prefer the convenience of an online session and the familiarity of technology over the sometimes strained and artificial environment of a clinical face-to-face encounter.

The takeaway would seem to be that while data shows trends, individuals can be responding very differently to a crisis depending on the sources of support they have, and whether they see their suffering as meaningful. With the end of the pandemic now in sight, the real question will be whether we can learn from this time of quiet and find ways for those who did better during the pandemic to keep thriving.

References

Fancourt, D., Steptoe, A., & Bu, F. (2020). Trajectories of anxiety and depressive symptoms during enforced isolation due to COVID-19 in England: a longitudinal observational study. Lancet Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30482-X

New-love-Delgado, T., McManus, S., Sadler, K., Thandi, S., Visard, T., Cartwright, C., & Ford, T. (2021). Child mental health in England before and during the COVID-19 lockdown. The Lancet Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30570-8