Mental health problems likely to outlast pandemic

·3 min read

May 13—Mental health problems are likely to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic that helped spawn them, university researchers said.

"There is a huge wave of mental health struggles here, and it's likely to be sustained," Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada said.

Madigan was one of three university researchers who spoke to reporters Wednesday during a video conference organized by SciLine, a nonpartisan group with a mission to add science to news coverage.

A clinical psychologist, Madigan has been tracking 1,500 mothers and children born in the last 11 years.

After COVID-19 struck, mothers reporting depression increased to 35% from 19%. For anxiety, the percentages climbed to 31% from 18%.

Among children, anxiety and depression also increased.

For comparison to COVID-19, Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard University, looked at an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

A year after Ebola subsided, 48.3% of Sierra Leoneans had at least one symptom of depression or anxiety.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Koenen said people experienced unpredictability, economic reversal, shortages, bereavement, isolation and other factors "toxic to mental health."

Her research after the Great Recession showed a link between foreclosures and risk of depression. Likewise during COVID-19, people with lower incomes reported higher levels of depression, according to a study from England.

Koenen expects political pressures such as protests against the government in Hong Kong or marches after the death of George Floyd will add to mental health difficulties.

Dr. Ruth Shim, a psychiatrist and associate dean of diverse and inclusive education at University of California, Davis, said during COVID-19, rates of depression rose for all racial and ethnic groups.

When talking about factors in depression — unemployment, food insecurity, discrimination, difficult life experiences and lack of access to health — Shim distinguished between health disparities among different populations and health inequities brought about by unjust distribution of money, power and resources.

"Social factors are the ones that we can change," Shim said. "... We can actually intervene in those things very quickly."

During the pandemic, Madigan encouraged family doctors to check on their patients' mental health.

"A lot of families are really struggling. How are you doing?" is how she said a doctor might pose the question.

Koenen said depression and post-traumatic stress, which people have suffered during the pandemic, have lifelong effects on physical health, cognitive abilities and are associated with earlier deaths.

"So we need to address mental health, not just because people are suffering now," she said, "... but because we will feel the adverse effects of mental health both across the life course and across generations."

Koenen hopes that society chooses as a result of the pandemic to provide support to people who need mental health services.

Around her home in the Boston area, she said people have benefitted from extra unemployment benefits, food vouchers and walk-up grocery giveaways.

"Those things do protect people's mental health," Koenen said.

Shim said when people have a say in policies for their neighborhoods, their mental and physical health improves.

"At the neighborhood level, people coming together, that is hugely protective for mental health," she said. "It's really a matter of kind of bringing those solutions up to scale."

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