by UnHerd
Thursday, 12
August 2021
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07:00

Did mental health improve during the pandemic?

A new study finds an unprecedented decline in depression at the start of 2020
by UnHerd
Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion


  • That depression may be measured as lower in the first wave isn’t altogether surprising.
    We were operating under a new threat, with neurotransmitters related to fright flight and fight overrriding other mechanisms.
    These data are meaningless. The question is, what happens after the wave has passed? What happens when an emergency system becomes the norm?
    Mental ill health took 3 months to manifest. And in the January lockdown, mental ill health arrived in days, not weeks.
    I am singularly unconvinced by this argument.

  • I think what isn’t factored into/visible in those studies is what restrictions were actually in place in each country at each data point.
    In Germany, you could pretty much always go round to someone else’s house and see your friends. In the UK, that was illegal for many months. Sweden had practically no restrictions for most of last year, while Spain had a phenomenal number.
    I don’t think you can really compare supranationally without that information, because a large part of what causes increases in depression (and significantly more so for suicide) is social isolation.
    The data sets also cut off in August, which was a hopeful time in Europe for COVID. It was seen as on the out. Now it is presented as ever present and never going away (with certain people wanting the same for restrictions). I think those are some quite significant changes in how our minds cope with the day to day.

  • Indeed! From the journal:
    “For example, increased subjective well-being during the first lockdown in France was found mostly among socioeconomically advantaged and employed individuals (Recchi et al. 2020).”

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