October 3, 2022

Mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic

Multiple studies carried out during 2020, but if there is one thing to call out is the rise of mental health as a conversation that we need to have.

As part of the World Happiness Report 2020, Chapter 5 has been entirely dedicated to the pandemic's impact on mental health. Multiple studies carried out during 2020, but if there is one thing to call out is the rise of mental health as a conversation that we need to have.

It does not come as a surprise that people have reported low happiness, elevated anxiety, a decrease in feelings of life being worthwhile and overall life satisfaction. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the power of gratitude when we find ourselves in situations that seem overwhelming.

The practice of gratitude by definition involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating life as it is today and what has made it so. That felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life which is experienced when practicing gratitude has proven in studies to cause a direct effect on mental and physical health. So, at a time that we all need it I want to ask you to join in for this little gratitude practice.

Activity: The practice of gratitude.

Instructions: Once a week, (ideally Sunday) write down 5 things you are grateful for. Keep this going for 10 weeks and then evaluate how you are feeling.

Despite everything that has happened during this past year, there is so much to be grateful for. Yes, we’ve gone through a major global pandemic and we’re all eager to get back to some sort of normality, but while that happens, let’s be grateful for the good things in our lives now.

Gratitude is a booster of mental health, and mental health is a key component of subjective well-being which clearly is one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic. Depression and anxiety have impacted the mental health of people all over the globe. As our mental health impacts choices, behaviors and outcomes it has taken centre stage during this pandemic.

While mental health across the population increased a lot over the summer, we are yet to see the impact in the last three months of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 as most countries outside East Asia imposed again strict restrictions. Most countries have hit the one year mark of the first restrictions in early 2021 which represents one of the longest health crisis which without a doubt is hard to overlook.

There are a number of causes that played a role in the decline in mental health:
  • health-related anxieties, such as the likelihood of being infected, hospitalized or chance of dying, the possibility of loved ones being infected or dying or the probability of infecting others;
  • the effect on an individual's financial situation
  • complications that arise from domestic family arrangements
  • loss of fulfilling activities caused by restrictions

While we have all been affected to a smaller or larger degree, the pandemic has increased inequalities in mental health, both within the population as a whole and between demographic groups. In addition, we have seen the mental health services being disrupted during the pandemic making it especially difficult to access mental health medication and support during lockdowns.

The larger decline in mental health occurred among women, who already had worse levels of mental health before the pandemic hit. Young women between 16-34 had by far the biggest mental health shocks but were in line with the average by September, while elderly women were more persisting, leaving them as the group most impacted. When it comes to men, younger men have been most affected while older men have been least impacted. The effects were also worst in ethnic minorities and those with pre-existing mental health problems even though the groups with poor mental health pre-pandemic were not disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

When it comes to professions, as expected there is also evidence that healthcare workers have suffered particularly bad mental health shocks. Lastly, when it comes to leaving arrangements, individuals living with children showed higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms initially, but they showed a fast improvement rate. Adults living alone experienced the worst levels of depressive symptoms associated to higher levels of loneliness caused by social restrictions.

There is no doubt that the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health are large, negative and remarkably consistent. Following the initial shock to mental health, we experienced a recovery although not completely. This has pushed mental health high on policymakers and researchers’ agenda focusing on key factors such as loneliness, social isolation and social support.

It’s hard to speculate precisely on the magnitude of mental health consequences since the shocks have been of a nature and size that we have not seen in modern times. One thing that we can agree on is that that younger generations will be most heavily affected by the long-run economic consequences.

Lastly, the effect of the pandemic on healthcare itself may make it hard to return to normal mental health care levels, let alone provide the additional services needed given the increased demand by COVID-19.

Along with the loss of lives, the long-term economical crisis, mental health is one of the biggest pandemic consequences. However, when it comes to the mental health conversation the pandemic has removed some of the associated stigma driving action towards the importance of mental health.

If you want to read more on the topic head to World Happiness Report (WHR) and view Chapter 5. Want to read more about the rest of the chapters? Follow me and get a new article each week.

Written by Andreea Pap

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