A massive study of the pandemic found something surprising in global mental health: resilience

Photo: China Daily (Reuters)

Back in 2020, people were suffering.

We feared contracting covid-19. We worried about family. We faced confinement in our homes. Women, one study foundwere most affected by the psychological pressure of lockdown. Across the world, concerns began to surface of the deep and potentially lasting impact the pandemic would have on our collective mental health.

Now, a large systematic review that sought to bring together as much evidence as possible of humanity’s mental state before and after the pandemic has reached a perhaps surprising conclusion.

At a population level, the researchers — mainly based at hospitals and universities in Canada — didn’t find that the pandemic had a negative impact on our mental health. With some exceptions and caveats, the world appears to have come through the first global pandemic in 100 years displaying “a high level of resilience,” they wrote in a paper published March 8 in the British Medical Journal.

We may be changed forever by our experiences of those strange, lonely, and frightening times. But we might not be, collectively, unhappier.

Most of the data came from rich countries

There is one big caveat to this finding, the authors noted. The systematic review sought as many studies as it could find, globally, and synthesized their findings, but the majority of those studies came from rich countries.

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After looking at more than 90,000 studies, and discarding most of them for not fitting their tight criteria, the researchers eventually analyzed 137 studies, of which almost all came from high income or upper middle income countries. The meta-analysis only looked at studies where the mental health of the same cohort of people had been studied both before and after the pandemic, or which had used statistical methods to account for missing data, and had more than 100 participants.

The studies also focused on populations in general, not specific vulnerable groups, the authors noted. But even when smaller subgroups were identified in the data, while some did show negative mental health impacts, these were found to be small.

Women’s mental health did suffer more

The change to women’s mental health was not as devastating as some mid-pandemic studies might have suggested. But while men and other sub-groups were not found to have suffered any significant negative mental health impacts, the researchers found that “women or female participants experienced small negative changes, in aggregate, for general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depression symptoms,” particularly during the early part of the pandemic.

The researchers noted that the difference between how much men’s and women’s mental health worsened was not great—women’s being just statistically significant, men’s not—but suggested that attention should still be paid to the finding.

“Significant worsening of symptoms among women or female members of the population is of concern,” they wrote, not least because many of the factors that make people more vulnerable to mental health challenges are more represented in women: Most single parent families are headed by women, women earn less, and are more likely to live in poverty than men, they noted. Women are also more likely to work in healthcare or provide family healthcare, and more likely to suffer intimate partner violence.

Overall, however, the study strikes a more upbeat tone than much of the other news about mental health that’s been published since covid-19 first struck. When people talked about their own mental health during the pandemic, they were clearly affected by it. But, the authors suggested, that hasn’t translated into population-wide lower mood or increased rates of depression, to name just two negative mental health symptoms.

While “many or most people have experienced different aspects of covid-19 as highly unpleasant or distressing,” the authors wrote, “most people have been resilient.”

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