In March 2020, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. The pandemic had profound and tangible effects on every aspect of daily life. It dominated news headlines for 2 years, with the media primarily focusing on the daily loss of life, the strain it placed on health services, and its economic impact. One of the less covered effects of the pandemic was the psychological toll it had on society.
The rules and regulations imposed by governments to slow the rate of infection dictated the way we were able to interact with friends and family. For many, the only means of interaction was through digital means. Zoom became software that was used as a daily tool to work, study, and socialize for millions around the world.
Humans are naturally social beings and the pandemic placed many in an unnatural situation of abject loneliness. This begs the question, what was the psychological impact of this government mandated isolation?
Early in the pandemic, health practitioners and psychologists estimated that psychological morbidity would be a likely outcome for many. This was a safe assumption. Based on data collected from previous major emergencies and pandemics, it was estimated that mental health problems would be present in the aftermath of the pandemic, which would persist for years after [i]
Previous reports also predicted that certain individuals were more likely to experience psychological morbidity as a result, such as health care workers, people with pre-existing psychological disorders, and those in precarious socio-economic positions[ii].
It is important to note that the psychological impacts are still being investigated by researchers and the true extent of the impact this event had on the mental health on a global scale.
Gavin, Lyne, and McNicholas characterise it as a ‘dynamic global psychosocial stressor’. They admit that the task of undertaking a study of such complexity is daunting as the data is so vast. Their study cites a pronounced increase of individuals reporting heightened levels of depression and anxiety. But they also point to studies which report that the effect was moderate, which contradicts the narrative of the pandemic having profound psychological impact [iii].
However, studies have shown a significant increase of reported mental health problems in younger and more vulnerable populations. This is supported by a marked increase in referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services from September 2020 post-COVID-19 when compared to years preceding the pandemic.
Other negative situations, which could have a direct impact on the mental health of the affected, increased. These include, increases in reported rates of domestic violence, the school closures for vulnerable children, and concerns regarding the impact of restriction regimens on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly. These restrictions lead to further social isolation and loneliness for these populations[iv].
Interestingly, Taquet, M. et al. (2021)[v] and Wang Q., Xu R., and Volkow N. D. (2021)[vi] highlighted a ‘bidirectional link’ between COVID-19 and mental illness. Meaning, COVID-19 increases the risk of mental illness and mental illness increases the risks of COVID-19.
A meta-analysis conducted by Ceban, et al. (2021)[vii] revealed that people afflicted with pre-existing mood disorders were more likely to be hospitalised and/or die from complications associated with COVID-19.
Many of the sources cited above point to a need for increased resources being directed to specialised mental health care facilities to address the heightened levels of psychological morbidity being reported.
Below is a YouTube video discussing this topic:
The psychological toll of the pandemic isn’t a subject that is freely discussed among peers. Speaking for myself, I know that the pandemic and the restrictive measures had an impact on my mental wellbeing. How about you? Feel free to interact with the poll below.
[i] NATO Joint Medical Committee (2008) ‘Psychosocial Care for People Affected by Disasters and Major Incidents: A Model for Designing, Delivering and Managing Psychosocial Services for People Involved in Major Incidents, Conflict, Disasters and Terrorism’.
[ii] O’Connor, K. et al. (2021) ‘Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 in Ireland and the Need for a Secondary Care Mental Health Service Response’. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 38(2), pp. 99-107. DOI: 10.1017/ipm.2020.64.
[iii] Gavin, B., Lyne, J., and Fiona McNicholas, F. (2021) ‘The Global Impact on Mental Health Almost 2 Years Into the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. 38(0), pp. 243. DOI: 10.1017/ipm.2021.75.
[iv] van Tilburg, T. G et al. (2021) ‘Loneliness and Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Study Among Dutch Older Adults’. The Journals of Gerontology, 76(7), pp. 249-255. DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa111.
[v] Taquet, M. et al. (2021). ‘Bidirectional Associations between COVID-19 and Psychiatric Disorder: Retrospective Cohort Studies of 62,354 COVID-19 Cases in the USA’. The Lancet Psychiatry, 8(0), pp. 130–140. DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30462-4.
[vi] Wang, Q., Xu, R., and Volkow, N. D. (2021) ‘Increased risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality in people with mental disorders: analysis from electronic health records in the United States’. World Psychiatry, 20(1), pp. 124-130. DOI: 10.1002/wps.20806.
[vii] Ceban, F. et al. (2021). ‘Association Between Mood Disorders and Risk of COVID-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. JAMA Psychiatry, 78(10), pp. 1079-1091. DOI: 10.1001/ jamapsychiatry.2021.1818.