Scientists from across Europe who are studying the effects of the pandemic outbreak are working together in the European Commission-funded Periscope programme. "Wyborcza" is the only media outlet participating in the project.
It is not just about analysing the economic or health impact of the pandemic. It is equally important to develop solutions for the future - to turn a traumatic collective experience like a pandemic into more effective responses.
We all remember the dramatic images of the early days of the pandemic, especially around Bergamo in Italy.
- May this really be a declining phase and may the nightmare we found ourselves in in March and April never return - Maria Beatrice Stasi, a hospital director, who was also infected with coronavirus herself, said at the time with tears in her eyes. A fight for which we were not prepared, but which unleashed energy in us, as the mayor of Bergamo put it, took its toll on the mental health of the victims and the doctors who rescued them.
Some medical staff compared the psychological effects of working in covid wards to scars that will stay with them. COVID-19 exposed human nature in its entirety.
Do disasters always lead to deterioration of mental health?
Many of us believe that pandemics, wars or natural disasters are associated with a reduction in mental problems in the population. On this occasion, for example, stories of upper-class women taken to camps in Siberia are often cited - melancholy (as depression was then called) was supposed to pass.
Despite the, largely, anecdotal accounts, many experts warned as early as last March that we would be facing a collapse in mental health at the level of entire populations unparalleled in earlier decades.
The consequences of grief, fear, social isolation, among others, were supposed to contribute to increased alcohol and drug use, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Is this the case in reality?
The effects are complex, and it is hard to present conclusions as simple generalisations. Now, 1.5 years after the worst phase of the pandemic, with Spanish nursing home residents dying abandoned and support being sent to Italy, we are slowly beginning to learn more about the psychological consequences of the pandemic. To this end, experts at the Periscope have compared the findings of 180 studies.
"Pandemic mood" and its consequences
The paper included in the analysis - a widely cited study by Matthias Pierce's team at the University of Manchester - was one of the first in the scientific field to compare a representative sample of the population before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, the conclusions are clear.
As experts point out, the overall decline in mental wellbeing cannot be explained by the downward effect observed since 2014. The mental health of the British has clearly deteriorated during the pandemic. Similar effects were found in 36 other scientific papers.
Kobieta w masce chroniącej przed koronawirusem na ulicy w Pekinie. Fot. Ng Han Guan / AP Photo
A woman wearing a mask to protect herself from coronavirus on a street in Beijing. Photo by Ng Han Guan / AP Photo
In contrast, other studies, including those carried out in the Netherlands, Australia and the US, did not find an increased incidence of depression or increased anxiety.
The most difficult to interpret, however, are those papers that have reported the opposite effect - a decrease in depression and anxiety levels in the population. For example, as experts at Israel's Ben Gurion University have shown, women who gave birth at the height of the pandemic had a lower risk of postnatal depression.
The same was true for Kazakh medical students - during lockdown, they were found to have a lower incidence of burnout syndrome, depression, anxiety or negative somatic symptoms after switching to remote education.
Other analyses have also found a reduction in the prescription of antidepressants (although in this case the argument remains that access to health services is difficult).
Decrease in suicide rates (at least for now)
- We have a situation similar to the war - Professor Adam Czabański, suicidologist from the Medical University in Poznań, said in an interview at "Wyborcza". - During the Second World War there were fewer suicides than before the war. They jumped only after the war ended. This is how it usually looks in case of similar crises.
Although comparing the current pandemic to the nightmare of the Second World War seems an abuse, if we stick to this metaphor, the data collected by scientists confirm the opinion of the Polish expert.
Contrary to pessimistic scenarios, the pandemic has not increased the number of suicides. This was the case in the US, Australia, Japan or Peru. In the latter, there was even ... a decrease in the number of suicides.
Far more difficult than a pandemic, however, may be its indirect effects. As Gustaw Herling-Grudziński observed, "as with any suicide, the cord was of many fibres". The decision to take one's own life is
a combination of many elements. Often the result of many negative events.
In situations of maximum stress, we focus more on ourselves and our loved ones. The economic effects, on the other hand, are long-lasting and devastating, with some economists predicting the deepest recession in many years.
In this context, analyses of suicide rates after the 2008 economic crisis are particularly worrying. At the time, nearly 40 studies analysing correlation confirmed an increase in suicides in the face of the economic crisis.
In both European and Asian countries, e.g. South Korea, the group at highest risk in the Greek study were economically active men aged 35-54 years.
Lessons for the future
Paradoxically, the contradiction of the results obtained may allow to design better strategies to deal with similar crises in the future.
After all, the differences in results stem from the different strategies used in different countries to combat COVID-19 and the different location of the respondents.
As the researchers conclude, "some populations actually experienced improvements in a variety of mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, well-being and distress".
In no way can such results be interpreted as "positive effects" of something exclusively negative - a pandemic. Psychologists speak, for example, of a phenomenon known as "post-traumatic growth", which refers to many positive changes that occur after difficult and extremely stressful events. In New Zealand, for example, many people declared that they re-evaluated their lives, their priorities in life and their relationships with relatives and friends as the result of the lockdown.
Future research and the design of systemic solutions should therefore take account of the different results and lead to systemic solutions. So that the next pandemic, which is a reality, surprises us less.
As experts emphasise, challenges for the future include ensuring access to medical care in an epidemic crisis (especially psychiatric care, which is then pushed to the background), improving remote medicine and support for at-risk groups (e.g. the elderly).
If we already know that men, for example, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the economic crisis, it is worth taking this knowledge into account in future strategies for tackling the consequences of the pandemic. According to hundreds of scientific studies, it is impossible to analyse the consequences of the pandemic on mental health in isolation from economic developments.
And once the pandemic is over, how do we assess the impact and the damage? How do we develop an action plan? The Periscope project brings together the best scientists and experts from 32 European universities, research institutes and think tanks. Gazeta Wyborcza is the only media outlet cooperating with them. The Periscope project is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon2020 programme.
Translated by Chris Borowski
This is a translation of the article from July 13, 2021.
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