A major new study suggests the pandemic may not have significantly affected mental health—challenging multiple studies that have found the intense period caused by the global covid crisis had a negative impact on Americans’ mental health due to factors like social isolation and financial instability, resulting in the rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide to increase.
The new study published in the BMJ on Wednesday reviewed 137 studies on the pandemic’s impact on mental health and found minimal change in mental health statistics.
There was no change in general mental health or anxiety symptoms in the general population, according to the study’s findings—depression symptoms saw a minimal increase—but the study found general mental health, anxiety and depression symptoms in female participants slightly worsened, attributing the change to working in healthcare or elder care, multiple family responsibility or domestic violence.
But another recent study published by the not-for-profit hospital system Intermountain Health found a link between the Covid pandemic and an increase in depression rates.
The study examined around 136,000 participants between 2020 and 2022 and found a rise in depression symptoms regardless of whether patients were infected with Covid—over half of participants reported some degree of symptoms.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), around 21 million adults experienced at least one depressive episode in 2020—adult women reported higher rates than their male counterparts.
Americans’ overall mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic, with a Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll reporting many adults experienced negative impacts on their well-being and mental health in 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports one in five Americans will experience a mental illness within any given year, and more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental disorder or illness within their lifetime.
Depression And The Pandemic
Research from Boston University published in the Lancet discovered depression rates tripled and symptoms worsened over the pandemic, reporting 32.8% of Americans experienced heightened depressive symptoms in 2021, compared to 27.8% percent in 2020 and just 8.5% before the pandemic. According to the Lancet author Sandra Galea, depression rates typically decrease after the peak of a traumatic event. However, “the sustained high prevalence of depression” following the pandemic doesn’t coincide with patterns of other traumatic events like the Ebola outbreak and Hurricane Ike. NIMH characterizes depression as a serious but common mood disorder that affects how a patient feels, thinks and handles daily activities like eating, working or sleeping, and sparks feelings ranging from hopelessness, frustration to suicidal thoughts.
Anxiety And The Pandemic
In 2022, the World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in global anxiety and depression during the first year of the pandemic. They attributed stress caused by isolation as one of the biggest factors contributing to the increase. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also found an increase in anxiety rates, with people in lower socioeconomic statuses taking a bigger hit. The study attributed the spike in unemployment rates to 7.5% (the highest it’s been in 20 years) as one of the driving forces. Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness, fear or dread that may cause restlessness, sweating and an intense heartbeat. There are multiple anxiety disorders, but three of the biggest ones are phobias, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, emotional symptoms of anxiety include restlessness or irritability, anticipating something going wrong, feelings of dread or apprehension and feeling tense or jumpy. Physical symptoms of anxiety include headache, fatigue or insomnia, diarrhea, and upset stomach or constant urination, a racing heart, shortness of breath and tremors, sweating or twitching. Over 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder.
Suicide And The Pandemic
According to a CDC study, there was a decline in suicide between 2018 and 2019 that continued into 2020. However, rates rose by 4% in 2021, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, A Lancet study found an increase in suicide in the youth during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic numbers. The increase was especially prevalent between August 2020 and November 2020. A BMC Psychiatry review analyzed studies that included 33,345 suicide-related deaths and 12,746 suicide attempts, and found a possible connection to unexpected behavior changes due to the pandemic. An increase in anxiety, depression, domestic conflicts and violence and financial are risk factors attributed to the increase in suicide and suicide attempts. In 2020, suicide was the 12 leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death among 10-14 year olds and 25-34 year olds, responsible for 45,900 deaths. A Jama Pediatrics report found California, Indiana, New Jersey, Georgia, Virginia and Oklahoma each had an increase in overall suicides among adolescents during the pandemic. Alaska and Montana saw a decrease in overall adolescent suicides.
Ptsd And The Pandemic
The CDC reports 26% of the U.S. population experienced either post traumatic stress disorder or post traumatic stress symptoms during the pandemic. A Journal of Affective Disorders review found an increase from 7% to 53.8% in PTSD cases due to the pandemic in the U.S., Denmark, Italy, China, Spain, Iran, Turkey and Nepal. The study associated the change with high levels of psychological distress within these populations as a result of the pandemic. PTSD develops in some people who’ve experienced a scary, shocking or dangerous event. Although most people who’ve experienced traumatizing events develop short-term symptoms, a small percentage develop long-term symptoms, according to NIMH. Some symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams, scary thoughts, angry outbursts, difficulty sleeping, feeling “on edge,” staying away from places or people that remind the patient of the traumatic events and avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the event.