August 12, 2021 - 7:00am

It was never unreasonable to suppose that the pandemic — and lockdown — would lead to a crisis in mental health. Quite apart from the suffering of those most directly affected by the disease, the stress and isolation suffered by entire populations was expected to have a serious impact on well-being. 

Increasingly, we now have hard data to analyse. A new study by a team of researchers led by Zachary van Winkle of Sciences Po and Oxford University looks data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe; and across 11 countries finds an “unprecedented decline in feelings of depression” that coincides with the first wave of the pandemic last year.

The dataset stretches back for more than a decade and this fall was “larger than any previous observed change”. Furthermore, there were “no systematic within-country differences by socioeconomic characteristics, chronic health conditions, virus exposure, or change in activities.”

Change in the probability of reporting feelings of depression in 2020 relative to 2017 by country

Putting it mildly, the authors observe that these findings “challenge the conventional wisdom.”

Before trying to find an explanation, it’s worth pointing out a few things. Firstly, this is just one study — and we need others that provide a similarly comparative and longitudinal overview. Secondly, it concerns reported feelings of depression in the over 50s — and we need to pay attention to other mental health conditions and age groups too. Thirdly, the data only extends to the first wave of the pandemic and covers only one part of the world (Europe).

It should also be said that these are population-level studies and even if an overall decline in depression has taken place it doesn’t mean that particular individuals haven’t suffered. 

Nevertheless, if the results of this study are at all indicative of the bigger picture, then we do need explanations. It would seem extraordinary that something as calamitous as the pandemic and as constricting as lockdown has coincided with a marked improvement in (aspects of) mental health.  

The disturbing implication is that the real problem is with normality.