New research: Mental health declined, some people with depression improved


Depression and anxiety disorders increased by over a quarter globally in 2020, according to a recent review of 48 scientific papers. But although there’s been an obvious negative trend during the pandemic, deteriorating mental health hasn’t been inevitable, and people haven’t been affected equally.

In our recent study, we found that there’s variation in how the pandemic has affected mental health, and that for some, mental well-being actually increased under Covid.

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of around 4,200 Danish people in the autumn of 2020. Importantly, these people had already taken part in a population survey in the autumn of 2019, so we could compare their responses half a year into the pandemic with how they reported feeling just before it started.

For most, their mental health declined. The average score participants gave their mental well-being fell from 25.5 to 24.6 (on a scale ranging from seven to 35). At the same time, the proportion of people reporting low levels of mental well-being (indicative of poor mental health) increased from 16.5 percent in 2019 to 20.1 percent in 2020. The decreases in mental well-being were similar across the sexes and age groups.

But surprisingly, we saw no decrease in mental wellbeing among people with longstanding physical or mental illnesses, nor people living with depression prior to the pandemic. In fact, for people who had depression beforehand, we saw an increase in average mental well-being, from 18.7 to 19.6.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there are several reasons why these people may have fared better. Prior crises have also been associated with improved social functioning in some people. This could be because the stress experienced can stimulate cooperative and trusting behavior, and this could potentially benefit those with depression.

For example, some depressed people may have found an opportunity to pass on their own coping experiences to others and support them in dealing with difficult circumstances, which in turn could have benefited their own mental well-being. Moreover, with people around them experiencing emotional distress in response to the pandemic, people with poor mental health may have felt less like a minority.

It’s also possible that the pandemic alleviated some social pressures and unwanted interactions with other people. At the same, more time spent with immediate family could have enhanced mental well-being.

That said, an important thing to note is that people with prior depression didn’t experience levels of mental well-being that were higher than everyone else’s, but simply an improvement relative to how they felt prior to the pandemic.

We still need to better understand how the pandemic resulted in declining mental well-being in the general population, and perhaps more importantly, how we can mitigate this under future pandemic conditions.

There’s also an important opportunity for us to investigate what specifically during the pandemic brought about these positive effects for people living with depression, to see if we can improve their lives and recovery after Covid has subsided. The Conversation

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