The pandemic’s negative impact on mental health

A review of recent studies shows “a psychiatric epidemic is co-occurring with the COVID-19 pandemic”
May 6, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up virtually every aspect of life around the world over the past two years. The way people work, travel and carry out ordinary daily activities have been affected by efforts to control the spread of the disease and prevent illness and death. Such disruptions and the constant presence of the disease and its impacts have almost certainly affected the mental health of countless people. The psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts to control it are a growing global health issue that is not yet fully understood.

A new article published in the journal F1000 Research looks into the scale of COVID-19’s effects on mental health, how different people are affected and the factors associated with mental health challenges during a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. Md Mahbub Hossain and Samia Tasnim, doctoral students at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, joined colleagues from research institutions in Bangladesh and China in reviewing literature about the mental health impacts related to COVID-19 published during the early days of the pandemic.

Fear of illness and death, physical isolation due to quarantine, financial loss and trauma can contribute to mental health issues including depression, anxiety, sleep disorders like insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior. These impacts are likely to be more profound among more vulnerable groups, such as those with preexisting mental health conditions, as well as those facing greater risks from the disease.

The studies addressing the prevalence of mental health problems during the pandemic focused on the general population, people who received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis and health care workers. Studies using mental health surveys and social media data found higher rates of anxiety and depression among the general public in the beginning of the pandemic. Research on COVID-19 patients found higher rates of mental health issues in those testing positive for the disease compared to the general public. Patients with preexisting mental health conditions often experienced a greater mental health impact. Additionally, studies of health care providers found that people working in health care settings reported higher scores on depression and anxiety scales. However, studies found variations in mental health outcomes between different locations and among front line health care workers and those in different departments.

The researchers also identified factors associated with mental health problems through their review. They found that sociodemographic factors like age, gender, education, occupation, income and where a person lives were associated with mental health problems. For example, studies found variation in rates of anxiety and depression among younger and older people. Specifically, among children and adolescents, critical factors such as school closures, lack of meaningful social interactions, adverse domestic experiences, internet addiction, and lack of mental health resources have affected mental health and well-being.

Research also found that female participants in the general public and health care settings were more likely to experience mental health problems than males. Job insecurity and financial loss due to lockdowns was found to affect mental health, as was living in areas affected by COVID-19 or being in proximity to COVID-19 patients. Having preexisting physical or mental health conditions was also associated with greater mental health impacts, as was greater exposure to COVID-19 related news and social media content and poorer social support networks.

The researchers reported that “the epidemiological distribution of mental health problems informs a psychiatric epidemic is co-occurring with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is evidently becoming a global health challenge.” Moreover, the pandemic and its control efforts have impacted mental health, and the effects are not evenly distributed. The researchers identified a need for further research into the mental health impacts of the pandemic that cover longer time scales and use a multidisciplinary approach. They also identified areas where policy makers and practitioners could focus, such as addressing inequities in mental health, improving access to mental health care and information, and strengthening social support systems.

These findings show the need for more study and highlight the importance of considering mental health when addressing public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to control the spread of disease can have unintended and adverse effects on mental health, especially in vulnerable groups. Understanding the factors that can contribute to these effects can guide policy makers in reducing these impacts as the pandemic continues and in possible future pandemics.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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