If you can bear it, think back to the early days of the pandemic and recall the many articles warning that lockdowns, isolation, and stress would have a disastrous effect on our collective mental health. At the time, experts predicted big spikes in anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
We're now nearly 18 months in and, in America at least, rounding the corner on the worst of the pandemic. Did all those dire predictions come to pass? An in-depth new review of the science on the subject, summed up recently by its authors in the Atlantic, offers a hopeful answer.
A happy surprise hiding in a mountain of data.
Before we get started on digging into these findings, it's important to be crystal clear that Covid caused immeasurable suffering for many. Many people lost loved ones or their livelihoods. Others faced the crisis with existing mental health challenges or burdened by horrible inequities. Their distress was very real.
It's also worth noting that lots of us also struggled with milder but still deeply unpleasant mental health consequences. Experts say "covid brain" is an actual biological phenomenon caused by our brain's response to stress. So if the pandemic left you feeling sapped, foggy, listless, and just generally not your best self, this science very much is not denying your experience (for what it's worth, it's been mine too).
But did the pandemic cause a huge spike in the rate of clinical psychological issues like depression or, in the worst case, suicide? According to Lara Aknin, Jamil Zaki, and Elizabeth Dunn, a trio of psychology professors who recently reviewed close to 1,000 studies on mental health and the pandemic for top journal The Lancet, the answer is no.
Early in the pandemic, anxiety and depression did rise, according to data from 100 countries they looked at, but "as spring turned to summer, something remarkable happened: Average levels of depression, anxiety, and distress began to fall. Some data sets even suggested that overall psychological distress returned to near-pre-pandemic levels by early summer 2020," the psychologists report.
Initially skeptical of these findings themselves, the experts sliced and diced the data as many ways as they could think of and searched out only the highest quality studies. But however they looked at the numbers, they ended up telling the same story: On average we shook off the mental health hit from the worst pandemic in a hundred years within a few months. Suicides in 2020 were actually down slightly compared to previous years.
This is even better news than it looks like.
That is, of course, great news. Less human suffering is always better. But the message here actually might be even more cheering than simply showing that the pandemic's mental health impacts were milder than initially feared. The authors' key takeaway is a message most of us could benefit from hearing: "People are more resilient than they themselves realize."
To explain their surprise findings, the psychologists dig into the research on resilience and find plenty of evidence that people cope with all sorts of challenges, disasters, and unhappy accidents far better than they predicted they would.
So here's a happy reminder from science for you: The pandemic is thoroughly awful, but by way of silver linings, it has also showed us just how resilient people truly are. Remember that as you're trying to shrug off your burnout, social anxiety, and brain fog and face the world with renewed confidence. You are probably much stronger than you give yourself credit for.