TORONTO, March 9, 2023 – New research comparing individuals’ mental health before the pandemic and into its first year has found that COVID-19 had taken a relatively limited toll on the mental health of most people around the globe in 2020. This is according to a paper entitled Comparison of mental health symptoms before and during the covid-19 pandemic: evidence from a systematic review and meta-analysis of 134 cohorts published today in the BMJ by a national research team including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
The team, led by researchers out of McGill University, reviewed data from 137 studies in various languages involving 134 cohorts of people from around the world comparing participants’ mental health markers in 2018 and 2019 to those same individuals’ scores in 2020. Most of the studies were from high or middle-income countries, and about 75 per cent of participants were adults and 25 per cent were children and adolescents between the ages of 10-19.
The researchers found that where changes in mental health symptoms were identified compared to before the pandemic, these changes were minimal for the most part. This held true whether the studies covered the mental health of the population as a whole or that of specific groups (e.g., people of particular ages, sex or gender, or with pre-existing medical or mental health conditions).
“Mental health in COVID-19 is much more nuanced than people have made it out to be,” said Dr. Brett Thombs, the paper’s senior author, a Canada Research Chair and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University and Senior Researcher at the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital. “Claims that the mental health of most people has deteriorated significantly during the pandemic have been based primarily on individual studies that are ‘snapshots’ of a particular situation, in a particular place, at a particular time. They typically don’t involve any long-term comparison with what had existed before or came after.”
“While the findings in the study may be surprising to some, it is important to understand that this paper only analyzed data from trials involving the same participants before and during the pandemic, which may have excluded data from other types of studies,” said co-author Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, Physician-in-Chief and Clinician Scientist at CAMH. “A limited number of studies were from low or middle income countries, only a few studies had data from late 2020 and no studies reported on long-term mental health outcomes related to COVID-19. In other words, this research doesn’t necessarily give us the full picture of how everyone fared in the pandemic.”
Several additional factors could have influenced the findings from this review. First, government initiatives early in the pandemic may have focused on mental health in terms of public health messaging and establishing mental health supports for those individuals in need. Individuals may also have demonstrated resilience early in the pandemic as part of the “heroic” efforts and collective action often observed in populations immediately after the onset of a pandemic, war or natural disaster.
However, the paper did highlight some sub-groups that appeared to struggle more than others: Some women experienced a worsening of symptoms–whether of anxiety, depression or general mental health. In addition, depression symptoms worsened by minimal to small amounts for older adults, university students, and people who self-identified as belonging to a sexual or gender minority group. For parents, general mental health and anxiety symptoms were seen to worsen, although these results were based on only a small number of studies and participants.
“CAMH conducted a series of surveys between 2020 and 2022 to understand the Canada-wide mental health and substance use impacts of COVID-19,” said Dr. Hayley Hamilton, Senior Scientist in the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH. “That research highlighted that certain groups—among them women and parents—were more likely to feel anxious and depressed during the early pandemic. These individuals often bore social and economic burdens of the pandemic and therefore felt proportional effects on their mental health.”
The research team is continuing to update their findings as research accumulates to look at mental health across different time periods in the pandemic. “The results of this study indicate a need for more robust and timely mental health data going forward, including data on marginalized groups that are at higher risk of experiencing mental health challenges,” added co-author Dr. Branka Agic, Independent Scientist at CAMH Education. “Having high quality evidence that provides a comprehensive picture of the pandemic’s impact is essential to effectively planning and implementing interventions to support a population’s mental health.”
About The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
CAMH is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please visit camh.ca or follow @CAMHnews on Twitter.
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