Is It Time To Revise The COVID Mental Health Narrative?

There’s no arguing with numbers but that doesn’t mean that the recently released BMJ study suggesting the pandemic’s impact on mental health was negligible isn’t perplexing. The study’s authors, listed here, compared symptoms reported before and during the pandemic, finding “most symptom change estimates for general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depression symptoms were close to zero and not statistically significant”. Even when factoring in the likelihood of study bias, these findings are fundamentally difficult to reconcile with the prevailing narrative of covid’s cause and effect relationship with mental health. In light of the new data, maybe it’s time to question the absolute validity of popular consensus.

Looking for corroboration from other trusted sources brought me to the Kaiser Family Foundation, who in partnership with CNN generated their own data this month. The report backs the dominant assumption, saying:

“The pandemic has affected the public’s mental health and well-being in a variety of ways, including through isolation and loneliness, job loss and financial instability, and illness and grief”.

Kaiser Family Foundation, 2023

Contradictory official sources can push a lay person with a short attention span into the arms of research’s delinquent cousin, anecdotal evidence. Not objective or scientific in method, individual experiences don’t translate into clinical significance but at the risk of sounding semantic, I don’t consider them meaningless. Especially when the anecdotes form echos across social, economic and culturally diverse populations. Lay people have longitudinal, close range access to support the tracking of neighbors, friends, colleagues, family and social media connections. We filter this information through a unique catalog of personal values and form convictions.

This process informs the “meaning” measure of my work as a mental health advocate. I listen to the stories of my peers and undergo introspective work that animates my own storytelling. It’s an approach that’s primed me for an over-identification with what I’ll call the damage narrative. By consuming news congruent with my belief in a current mental health crisis, forced to the surface by COVID’s pressures I suppress confusion.

But problem solving operates under the opposite mandate. It demands a leaning in to confusion. George Saunders said “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more”.

In that spirit, any researcher, expert or lay person concerned with minimizing suffering through the advancement of evidence-based mental health care should consider taking a deep dive into the dissonance.