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Study Claims The Pandemic Mental Health Crisis Was ‘Minimal,’ And People Have THOUGHTS

This goes against my last three years of lived experience

Denji looking horrified in Chainsaw Man.

In the three years since the first pandemic lockdown hit the US (oof), I and plenty of other people I know have experienced difficulty with our mental health. And by “plenty,” I’d even venture to say I mean “most.” And yet, this week, the BBC shared a study from McGill University which triumphantly concluded that the “mental-health crisis from COVID pandemic was minimal.”

If this feels like a slap in the face to you and your lived experience—don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone. People have some thoughts about this study. The BBC’s post about the study went viral on social media as people offered their counter-narratives. The backlash was so bad, Twitter has now flagged the post for necessitating additional context.

Oh god, the gaslighting

Before we dig into the study and people’s reactions, humorous and serious alike, I want to acknowledge how reading this headline and this study is going to make a lot of people feel. I also want to explain where I’m coming from, because I’m not able to remove my perception bias here.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve personally grappled with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I’m also a musician, as are a huge chunk of my social circle, and music was an already-vulnerable industry which got hit hard by the pandemic. (These two things aren’t necessarily unrelated, by the way: pre-pandemic surveys regularly showed that around 73% of musicians struggle with their mental health. That’s three in four musicians, friends! What I’m trying to say is, buy some merch the next time you see a local band.)

To me, reading “the mental-health crisis from COVID pandemic was minimal” struck a gaslighting tone. Western societies in particular have basically decided COVID is over, even though it’s very much not. Last year, people were ushered back into their “normal lives” before they could fully process how they’d changed over the pandemic and the ramifications of any trauma they’d incurred or re-opened. In August 2022, the CDC basically threw their hands up and said it time to prioritize getting back to work and consumption over emphasizing public safety.

The narrative seems to be, “Everything’s normal, everything’s fine!” But for a lot of people, things are still not normal and fine. That leads to feeling left behind as other people seemingly (“seemingly” being a key word) can return to “normal.” In this headspace, this headline invokes the worse possible messaging: “The pandemic mental health crisis wasn’t even there in the first place, silly!”

So if any of this describes you, I’m right there with you. You’re not alone. It was totally there.

“Minimal … except for women”

The study finds that “no evidence in the general (not high risk) population of changes in general mental health, except for a slight deterioration in symptoms of depression.” Note “not high risk.” The scientists arrived at this conclusion looking at an aggregate of 134 studies from around the world. However, they notably leave out lower and lower-middle income countries out of the overall study entirely.

It also identifies women the most vulnerable subgroup studied, although it finds “deteriorations were still minimal or small on average.” Although the BBC adds that, “Other studies have found women felt the impact of the pandemic more because of the jobs they do and the role they play in family life.”

Indeed, the National Women’s Law Center found that “between February and April 2020, women lost 12.2 million jobs,” with women of color being particularly hard hit. Many women felt they had to leave the workforce in the wake of schools and day cares closing. While men had regained all the jobs they had lost by January 2022, it took women until March 2023 to hit that same milestone. That’s this month.

So … calling all the struggles therein “minimal” is not great.

A flawed and skewed study

There’s even more reason to be skeptical about the study. A review released in the wave of backlash to the study warns, “High risk of bias in many studies and substantial heterogeneity suggest caution in interpreting results.” The review suggests interpreting the study “cautiously.”

The review points out that very few of the utilized studies included groups “such as people with low socioeconomic status, and there were no studies on children.” So, some counter-points on those groups are in order. British mental health charity Mind found in a 2021 survey that 58% of respondents on benefits said they were experiencing poor mental health. The same survey found that 88% of children said the loneliness of the pandemic adversely affected their mental health. A honed-in American study published in 2022 found that the “impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health of children and adolescents is multifaceted and substantial.”

Additionally and critically, all but one of the 134 studies took place in 2020, “in most cases was in the first half of the year.” Only three checked in with their patients twice. Interestingly, the review notes that “general mental health and depression symptoms were shown to improve for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, but these findings were based on only two studies.”

This is anecdotal, but … First half of 2020? As long as you felt secure in your housing situation, I could see why someone with a history of mental health struggles temporary felt better. As a contract worker, unemployment gave me the first regular income I’d received in my life. Also for the first time in my life, I had the much-needed space to dig into my PTSD history and start healing. Plus, I was rocking the hell out of Animal Crossing.

Personally speaking the time period this study encompasses isn’t when things got rocky for me. They started getting rocky in fall and winter of 2021. Omicron, baby. The surveys and studies I listed above relied on data retrieved after this study got their research.

People offer their own experiences

Although certainly less well-rounded and scientific than other studies and opinions from experts, countless people on social media pounced on the BBC’s Tweet with their own experiences. All of which, as you might expert, paints a different story.

Many of the responses are humorously flippant, such as pointing out that fleeting span of time everyone got really into sea shanties. Others point out delightfully bizarre projects they embarked upon or obsessions they dug into.

The overall point is that these strange interests and behaviors we all got up to were indicators of self-medication. Which, for so many, meant Animal Crossing.

However, as one responder crushingly points out:

I, personally, think it’s both. People have been going through it as the various stages of the pandemic have evolved and dragged on. But also, a lot of people used that space to create weird and wonderful projects. And I have my suspicions about the ties between capitalism and mental health. But that’s for another day.

I think the BBC presenting a headline which states mental health struggles during COVID were/are “minimal,” even though the reporter amply challenges that statement within the article, was incendiary and irresponsible. I know I’ve said this a million times in this article, but if you experienced or are experiencing a challenging period in your mental health, you’re not alone.

(Featured image: MAPPA)

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Kirsten (she/her) is a musician, audio person, writer, and nerd. When not talking about One Piece or Zelda (among other anime and games), she's finding surprising ways to play the guitar.