Why we still can’t quantify the pandemic’s impact on our mental health

Illustration by Darren Hopes / Ikon Images How many people do you know who really…

Why we still can’t quantify the pandemic’s impact on our mental health

How many people do you know who really thrived during the pandemic? Who were loving life, throughout all the lockdowns and long winter months spent largely indoors? Who were stable and happy amid even the most severe restrictions? Not just “getting through fine”, but someone whose resilience (and unaltered mental state) was real. In January 2021 I wrote about the severe dip I felt when the winter lockdown hit. The response suggested many others were feeling the same way. And while many of us may have had good days – or even good stretches – in those multi-month marathons of 2020 and 2021, it feels safe to say that most people do not look back on that time fondly. Even fewer would claim to be completely unaffected by it.

So when a study released by the British Medical Journal at the end of last week found that the mental health crisis from the pandemic was “minimal”, with little lasting impact, the reaction online was one of disbelief. You need only look at responses to the BBC’s coverage of the story to get a sense of the outrage it provoked. Readers were quick to point out flaws in the study – it did not include young people and children, or people with pre-existing mental health issues, and largely surveyed those based in high-income European and Asian countries. People noted their own anecdotal evidence of deteriorating wellbeing during the height of the pandemic. (This also came with some stories reflecting how unhinged we all were, such as holding a birthday party for a dishwasher and buying a human-sized cut-out of a character from Monsters Inc.) The overwhelming consensus was that there was no way this image of our mental health could possibly be true.

While it’s clear that there were weaknesses in this specific study, it raises an important question – less than a year on from the last restrictions being lifted in the UK, can we really know the lasting impact of that time? The impulse to analyse the lingering effects of the pandemic on us today neglects what evidence we have from those months in lockdown themselves. Research by charities and data from the NHS showed a spike in mental health issues, with a third of adults and young people telling Mind that their mental health significantly worsened from March 2020 onward, and a 30 per cent rise in the number of children in contact with mental health services in the UK between 2020-21 and 2021-22. Surveys broadly showed that most people were struggling to stay positive, and data from the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of adults with depression doubled. It’s not as though we have so little data from that time that it warrants hasty, lopsided investigations into it now.

Just as it did at the time, discussion of the pandemic still invites extreme, polarised responses – we struggle to reflect on it with nuance. Now that we are safe from looming lockdowns, many of us shudder at the mere mention of the word “pandemic”, and simply want to pretend it never happened. Equally, there is a small (but vocal and prominent) contingent of people online who will claim you support eugenics and fascism if you are, in 2023, socialising in indoor public spaces. These impulses lead many people to lean into making sweeping, universal statements about “what happened” and “how things are now”, which fail to reflect the complex reality of pandemic and post-pandemic life. The BMJ study provoked such debate, with some arguing that Covid has left no trace on society, while others insist we are still living through a global “psychotic episode” that is affecting “every aspect of our lives”. It hardly seems possible that either of these narratives are true, but both represent a pandemic-era tic: speaking in absolute terms about a subject that demands the opposite treatment. 

It is understandable that many of us are seeking to draw neat conclusions about what the pandemic has done to us. But our experiences were diverse and varied, and we are barely out the other side. Millions of people may indeed be traumatised from the pandemic; at the same time, millions of others may now be completely fine. These facts are not mutually exclusive.

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I don’t know how I’m going to feel about those two years of my life in 20 years time – I’m not even sure I know now. What I do know, though, is that it will take years of critical distance for a truly clear picture of the period and its impact to fully form.

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[See also: The pandemic was a communal trauma, and we need culture to help us process it]