- How could anyone live through the pandemic and not take a hit on their mental health?
- Americans showed a significant initial increase in distress levels between March and April of 2020.
- However, we also saw a rapid return to the pre-pandemic baseline by mid-2020.
We are remarkably resilient in the face of COVID-19. But for how long?
COVID-19 seems to have overtaken the weather as the go-to topic of daily conversation. Almost every conversation I have at some point comes around to the topic of COVID-19 and its impact on our daily lives. “I’m so sorry to hear that your sister got sick, is she ok?” “Do you think the conference in March is really going to happen?” “I’m not sure if we should plan the wedding for the summer, everything seems so uncertain with COVID.” I wish there was a way to quantify just how much of our daily interactions evolve around COVID. My guess: A lot!
The continued impact of the pandemic on people’s physical and mental health is of great interest to psychologists like myself. Yes, obviously the pandemic influences my daily life just like it does for everyone else (all of the conversation snippets above were taken from conversations I’ve had in the last couple of days). But more importantly, COIVD-19 can teach us how humans cope with adverse events. What we are experiencing now will be scrutinized for decades to come for insights into human well-being, connection, suffering, and resilience.
We know from previous research that disasters such as hurricanes or terror attacks can have severe consequences for the mental health of entire populations. In the months following the terror attacks on 9/11, for example, about 10 percent of the population of New York City showed signs of clinical depression and almost 25 percent reported unusually high levels of alcohol intake. The impact of COVID-19 has arguably been even worse than that of isolated terror attacks or tropical storms. Not only did we have to worry about contracting the virus itself, but we also had (and still have) to cope with its natural corollaries (unemployment, economic uncertainty, feelings of helplessness) as well as the consequences of the necessary efforts to fight its spread (social distancing and isolation).
Given all of this, it is not surprising that soon after scientists and policymakers got used to worrying about the impact of COVID-19 on people’s physical health, they also started worrying about its impact on people’s mental health. Within weeks, research labs from all over the world set up their own studies to investigate the effects of COVID-19 on a wide range of mental health indicators, including depression, subjective well-being, loneliness, anxiety, suicide, and many more. My first guess is that there must be thousands of studies on the topic by now (including those coming out of my own lab). And my second guess is that most scientists, just like myself and the team of students I work with, embarked on their research expecting a stark increase in mental health issues. How could anyone live through the pandemic and not take a hit on their mental health?
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that COVID-19 did not pose a challenge to our mental health. It did, and there were many who greatly suffered from the consequences of loss, isolation, or economic uncertainty. But what the majority of studies have shown is that, on average, people have been remarkably resilient. In line with the findings from my own research, a report published by the Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission Mental Health Task Force, for example, suggested that while the initial stages of the pandemic were characterized by a drop in mental health along some indicators, others remained remarkably unaffected or bounced back surprisingly quickly. A representative survey of 7,319 US Americans across eight waves, for example, showed a significant initial increase in distress levels between March and April of 2020, but also a rapid return to the pre-pandemic baseline by mid-2020.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there was no negative impact on mental health whatsoever. What the growing body of research seems to suggest, instead, is that the burdens of COVID-19 were unevenly distributed across society. While some individuals experienced a drop in their mental health, others appeared to, in fact, benefit. Some of this variance is idiosyncratic and depends on the specific predispositions and circumstances of an individual. However, the Commission’s report mentioned above also highlights systematic differences in the impact of COVID-19 across different socio-demographic strata. General risk factors included: belonging to an ethnic minority, earning a low income, being female, and having children under the age of 5, as well as being young.
Although we know far more about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health than just a year ago, there is still a lot we don’t know. For example, most studies have focused on the first year of the pandemic. Although the impact of COVID-19 two years into the pandemic may be less novel or intense, there are many open questions that remain: Have people been able to sustain their resilience, or are we slowly running out of our resilience reserves? Has the shifting nature of the pandemic introduced new risk factors that have been previously overlooked? Given that COVID-19 seems to be here to stay, it is critical for us to understand its long-term impact on mental health.
Together with our partners at the University of Muenster in Germany and researchers from all around the world, we are trying to do just that (please support us in this effort and join our study - see reference section for details). COVID-19 impacts all of us, and it takes all of us to fight it. This fight includes not just supplying vaccines and medication but also understanding the psychological and sociological factors that determine so much of our daily experiences and mental health.
If you are interested in contributing to this research, please join our global community. Your participation will help us and future generations research, understand, and combat pandemics and other crises more effectively.
Galea, S., Merchant, R. M., & Lurie, N. (2020). The mental health consequences of COVID-19 and physical distancing: The need for prevention and early intervention. JAMA Internal Medicine, 180(6), 817–818.
Vlahov, D., Galea, S., Ahern, J., Resnick, H., & Kilpatrick, D. (2004). Sustained increased consumption of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana among Manhattan residents after September 11, 2001. American Journal of Public Health, 94(2), 253–254.
Mueller, S. R., Delahunty, F. & Matz, S. C. (working paper). The Impact of COVID-19 and Social Distancing on Mental Health in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom
Aknin, L., De Neve, J.-E., Dunn, E., Fancourt, D., Goldberg, E., Helliwell, J. F., … Lyubomirsky, S. (2021). Mental health during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: A review and recommendations for moving forward. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2021). Psychological distress and adaptation to the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 136, 603–609.
Ashokkumar, A., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2021). Social media conversations reveal large psychological shifts caused by COVID-19’s onset across US cities. Science advances, 7(39