What Are the Mental Health Effects of COVID-19?
A systematic review compiles the evidence on COVID-19 and mental well-being.
Posted August 27, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on globally, there is little doubt that it is taking a lasting toll on the mental health of millions of people. Fear of getting sick, the loneliness that accompanies quarantine, and a fragile economy combine to create complicated challenges to mental well-being.
Canadian psychology researchers have created a repository of evidence documenting how COVID-19 is affecting people’s mental health. The body of literature is a living systematic review, which investigators are continually updating with emerging research.
To date, the review has combined data from 56 different studies looking at mental health symptoms related to COVID-19 and identified factors that contribute to changes in mental health, and interventions aimed at improving those symptoms.
Fourteen studies identified specific mental health symptoms related to COVID-19. The evidence has found that some key take-home messages:
- Among university students, the pandemic has led to increased symptoms of depression and moderate increases in stress and loneliness.
- Other studies have found small increases in anxiety and depression among the general public.
- People with rare or serious diseases have been more likely to experience increased anxiety during the pandemic.
Forty-two studies have looked at the factors impacting mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among their findings:
- Health care workers treating patients with COVID-19 experienced significantly higher levels of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress.
- A study of the general population in England found participants had slightly higher levels of anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms compared to similar studies conducted before the pandemic. People who were younger, had young children living in their homes, and were considered a higher risk for becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms. In addition, people with lower incomes or who lost income were more likely to experience anxiety and depression. And older study participants were more likely to experience a significant increase in anxiety during the pandemic.
- A study conducted in Italy found people with higher levels of emotional stability, self-control, positive coping styles under stress were less likely to experience psychological distress due to the pandemic. Individuals with higher levels of locus control—for example, the belief they have some control over their circumstances—were also less likely to experience psychological distress.
To date, we lack data about effective COVID-19 interventions that improve mental health outcomes. Two small studies have demonstrated some promising outcomes: one found that muscle relaxation exercise helped to reduce anxiety among a small number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in China; another found that individuals who received psychologically-affirming texts showed improvements in their well-being.
There are many larger trials underway looking at the effects of virtual exercise interventions, meditation, body awareness, and counseling.
The take-home message: The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the mental health and well-being of people across the globe. Measuring its impact and designing interventions to help improve mental well-being is currently underway and a top priority for researchers.