COVID-19 May Not Lead to a Mental Health Crisis After All

Why the crisis might not be all doom and gloom for mental health.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

The last months have been filled with bleak predictions about mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These predictions have been couched in apocalyptic language, with much talk of a looming ‘mental health crisis’, ‘depression time-bomb’ or even an ‘epidemic of suicide’. Such forecasts predict an imminent mental health disaster worse than the coronavirus pandemic itself.

But are such dystopian visions based on scientific evidence, or sensational scaremongering?

A just-released survey of over 1,500 adults gives some preliminary answers. This survey found that only 16% of respondents rate their mental health as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. In other words, the vast majority rate their mental health as ‘good’, ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’, despite rising concerns about a second wave and further lockdowns.

These findings are consistent with existing research indicating that socioeconomic crises can (counter-intuitively) promote mental health. For example, the phrase ‘blitz spirit’ is well-known in the UK, referring to a semi-mythical period of World War 2 when Londoners rallied together with resolution and defiance to resist the ravages of nightly air raids. This ‘blitz spirit’ is epitomized in a famous wartime poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

While some have questioned the reality of the ‘blitz spirit’, research shows that psychiatric admissions actually decreased during the blitz. Moreover, a network of psychiatric clinics that were set up to cater for the expected mental health casualties of the blitz were closed due to a lack of patients, indicating that the air-raids did not trigger an epidemic of mental illness.

More recently, a large-scale European study surprisingly found an overall decrease in depressive symptoms after the Global Financial Crisis across 19 of the 21 countries studied (Spain and Cyprus being the exceptions). These findings imply that the repercussions of the Global Financial Crisis were not uniformly negative, and that doomsday predictions about an impending mental health crisis due to COVID-19 may be exaggerated.

All this raises the question: What promotes mental health during a crisis such as COVID-19? The existing research points to some surprising answers.

First, work is a source of purpose and meaning for most people, but can also engender significant amounts of stress. The ‘work from home’ directives associated with COVID-19 will have provided a welcome break from a stressful work environment for many, as well as less time commuting and more quality time with immediate family, all of which has been linked to positive mental health.

Second, research indicates that people tend to cut back on unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, and junk food during socio-economic crises. Contrariwise, people are more likely to exercise outdoors and obtain adequate sleep. All this can improve physical health, which is inextricably linked to mental health.

Third, crises such as COVID-19 can engender their own type of ‘blitz spirit’, uniting people in a collective experience and common cause. Indeed, a Hong Kong study found that the SARS crisis engendered widespread increases in social support from family and friends, as well as increased attention to mental health issues per se across society.

To be sure, COVID 19 has created considerable anxiety and insecurity, and support and resources should be available for those in need. But apocalyptic visions of a looming mental health crisis may be erroneously alarmist. For some, the ongoing crisis will cause mental health woes, particularly the newly unemployed and those in financial difficulties. But for others, it may provide a much-needed breathing space and an opportunity to rethink priorities.

Only time will tell the true long-term impact on society as a whole. But it may not be all doom and gloom.

In the meantime, keep calm and carry on.