RESPOND researcher Brenda Penninx from the Amsterdam University Medical Centre (VUMC) and colleagues have published a review article in Nature Medicine on the effect of the pandemic as well as COVID-19 infection on mental health.
Drawing from a range of studies which compare pre-pandemic with peri-pandemic data, the authors found that, on the whole, there has been a small increase in mental health symptom levels during the pandemic, though it remains to be seen whether this increase will be maintained over time.
The pandemic has affected population mental health both indirectly—through societal changes—and directly—via the impact of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2. Findings from following patients with severe infection point towards a large group of persons with post-COVID symptoms that involves cognitive impairment, fatigue, and anxiety and depression symptoms. Findings regarding the pandemic impact on mental health have been mixed, with studies of varying levels of quality, but a key issue that needs attention is that some groups may be disproportionately vulnerable to mental health problems, such as women, healthcare workers, people with pre-existing medical conditions, adolescents and young adults, and groups with low socio-economic status.
The researchers call for the following urgent actions to improve population mental health:
- Mental health should be given equal priority to physical health with specific attention given to those at the highest risk.
- Communication to the public needs to be concrete and ensure that exaggerations are not made.
- Research on the pandemic needs to be collaborative and of high quality in order to better inform mental health policies.
- Long-term mental health effects should not be neglected and better monitoring is needed.
- The mental health effects caused by infection should be given attention as there are many unanswered questions regarding ‘long COVID’.
- Research and healthcare infrastructures urgently need to become better prepared for future health crises and for adequate monitoring.