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Depression Rises in Germany Due to COVID-19

Some measures of well-being are affected by COVID-19. Others aren't.

Key points

  • Researchers found depressive symptoms to be flat between 2014 and 2017 but increased from 2017 to 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • When looking at other indicators of psychological well-being, they found no evidence of a pandemic-induced decline.
  • The authors hope their research will inspire others to examine which support structures can best help people adjust to pandemic situations.
Source: Tai S./Unsplash
Source: Tai S./Unsplash

A new article published in the academic journal Psychology and Aging reports that depressive symptoms increased in Germany as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is unclear how much the pandemic has influenced psychological well-being as a whole.

“It is quite plausible that the onset of the pandemic had, or still has, an impact on individuals’ well-being because so many life circumstances were suddenly and profoundly altered when the pandemic set in,” says Markus Wettstein, a psychologist at Heidelberg University in Germany and lead author of the research. “This is why we investigated to what extent well-being changed after the onset of the pandemic in Germany.”

To do so, the researchers analyzed data from the German Aging Survey, a nationwide representative longitudinal and cross-sectional survey of the German population aged 40 and older. They measured the degree to which depressive symptoms rose in pre-pandemic times (from 2014 to 2017) and also how much depressive symptoms rose during the beginning of the pandemic (from 2017 to 2020). They found depressive symptoms to be basically flat between 2014 and 2017 but then increased from 2017 to 2020 as a result of the onset of the pandemic.

But that’s only part of the story.

The researchers also looked at other indicators of psychological well-being, such as general life satisfaction. On this measure, they found no evidence of a pandemic-induced decline.

“In our sample of [German] middle-aged and older persons, life satisfaction slightly increased both between 2014 and 2017, which was the ‘pre-pandemic’ time interval we included for comparative purposes, but also between 2017 and June/July 2020, which was when Germany was still facing the first COVID-19 infection wave,” comments Wettstein. “There was thus no general trend of lower life satisfaction due to the pandemic.”

In other words, it appears that depressive symptoms are more susceptible to a COVID-19 effect than other measures of psychological well-being. But the story is still evolving and the researchers point out that not everyone is immune from COVID-19-related declines in life satisfaction.

“At first glance, it is good news that we did not find a general decline in life satisfaction in German middle-aged and older adults during the pandemic,” says Wettstein. “However, we identified individuals who are at risk of COVID-19-related well-being declines, such as those who perceive themselves as less healthy and as highly threatened by the pandemic.”

Another at-risk group identified by the researchers is middle-aged women.

“Middle-aged women (but not older women) seem to be particularly challenged during the pandemic, which is probably also due to factors such as the temporary closure of schools and child care facilities, because particularly mothers were forced to take over additional child care responsibilities,” says Wettstein.

The authors hope their research inspires others to examine which support structures can best help people adjust to pandemic situations.

“The pandemic is not over, and maintaining well-being might be harder the longer the pandemic lasts as psychosocial resources might get increasingly depleted,” says Wettstein. “We still need to learn more about strategies, resources, and characteristics that help to psychosocially adjust to this challenging situation as well as about risk factors for mental health problems during the pandemic so that we can develop strategies and interventions to prevent mental health problems due to COVID-19 for a substantial part of the population.”

References

Wettstein, Markus (Interview). Measuring the pandemic’s toll on mental health. Therapytips.org, January 4, 2022.

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