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January Update: The Psychological Impact of COVID-19

Every month, we summarise recently published research on mental health, COVID-19, and the pandemic’s effect on wellbeing. As 2020 came to a close, particular themes from mental health research continued to emerge. Mental health has been significantly impacted across countries and particular groups have been more affected than others, but there are things we can do to improve our wellbeing and psychological health. In the summary below, we look at data from a new study that has synthesised findings from longitudinal studies across Europe and consider how we can protect our own mental health as the pandemic continues.

To read more research on COVID-19 and its mental health impact from earlier last year, see our blog page.

The pandemic and mental health

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically influenced mental health at population levels. Researchers across the globe have found that overall levels of loneliness, anxiety, and worries related to the disease have risen. In addition, it is clear that certain people have been more vulnerable to the psychological consequences of lockdowns and social isolation than others.

This has been most recently demonstrated through the powerful findings of a longitudinal study of 205,084 individuals across Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the UK, recently published in a preprint of the Lancet Regional Health Europe. The group of international researchers analysed whether the mental health impact in these countries differed according to government policies but found that population groups have responded similarly. In general, people were:

  • able to worry less as the pandemic continued

  • more concerned about their loved ones becoming ill than themselves

  • much lonelier if they were young (less than 30 years old)

  • often very lonely if they had a previous diagnosis of mental illness

While results are similar, the researchers emphasise that public health interventions should not be one-size-fits all. Rather, governments should support the development of targeted programmes for particular subgroups, especially people with experience of mental illness, of whom at least 20% and as many as 50% had very high levels of loneliness during the first months of lockdown.

There is great potential for countries to come together to develop an international mental health strategy to help populations across the world recover their mental health and wellbeing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to protect our mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic

Unfortunately as second and third waves of the virus have struck and new lockdowns have been put in place in countries around the world, mental health has started to worsen again. In light of this an important question is: What can we all do to protect our mental health?

  • Controlling media absorption

Consumption of information related to COVID-19 has been associated with poorer mental health. During the UK lockdown, depression, anxiety and life satisfaction was negatively impacted by consumption of COVID-19 news. This might be even greater with social media. Studies in Italy and Germany have shown that absorption of COVID-19 information through social media can have a greater influence on stress symptoms. Limiting absorption of COVID-19-related information may help to protect mental health.

  • Staying physically active

Exercise and physical activity have also shown to help mental health. Over time, moderate physical activity can prevent increases in depression during home confinement. Researchers examining the link between loneliness and physical activity found that between 2015 and 2020, adults whose physical activity did not decrease experience little or no increases in loneliness. We’re already seeing evidence of these benefits during the pandemic.

  • Practising certain psychological behaviours

Researchers have also been analysing the benefits of certain mental behaviours and related interventions such as resilience, which has shown to be associated with mental health during the pandemic and can be learned and improved upon. People with low resilience have been suffering greater mental distress during the pandemic.

Similarly, psychological flexibility, or the ability to be consciously open to personal events, is also important. A Spanish study found that those who were inflexible at the start of the lockdown were more likely to suffer negative changes in mental health.

Different types of coping skills can also help to reduce stress. The UK Covid-19 Social Study found differences in how types of coping strategies affected mental health. In particular supportive coping—socially connecting with others—was associated with the greatest decrease in mental health symptoms across time.

However, results are not always clear cut for every type of coping skill. An analysis in the United States found that couples with higher levels of dyadic coping skills were not buffered against an increase in relationship conflict during the pandemic. So we may need to try and build up a range of coping skills to help us stay mentally well.

  • Seeking mental health services and/or telepsychiatry

During the pandemic people have sought different forms of mental health support, including talking to family and friends and engaging in self-care activities. Unfortunately, formal services such as speaking to a mental health professional are less commonly used. An Australian survey of 1631 individuals who have experienced loss of work during the pandemic found that people were more likely to report increasing alcohol consumption than seeking professional mental health support. However, telepsychiatry has been on the rise. We summarised the pros and cons of tele-mental health services and its effectiveness during the pandemic in our last blog. Research continues to show that opinions vary. A United States survey published in December found that most patients receiving telepsychiatric care felt they benefitted from the service. Additionally, some research is underway to test technology enabled mental health care within outpatient clinics in the United States. But more longitudinal research is needed to examine its effectiveness over time, as are efforts to encourage people to seek treatment.

Looking ahead

As we approach a second year of the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is likely that research will broaden. Fear of the disease itself, the psychological consequences of contracting it, and the indirect effects of social isolation on mental health have been made quite clear. However, soon we will probably see further ramifications on people’s mental health as they experience personal loss, financial difficulties, and other downstream outcomes of the pandemic. We in the COVID-Minds Network will continue disseminating crucial information on how mental health is being affected, provide evidence to support the delivery of mental health care, and guide individuals on how they can stay well.


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