Mental health problems in the COVID-19 pandemic: we need more careful presentation and interpretation of facts and less melodrama.

  • June 24, 2021

Since early on in the COVID pandemic there have been expressions of concern about its impact on mental health and, at least as reported in the mainstream media, those concerns have been couched in frankly melodramatic terms.  In May 2020 the then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists expressed fears1 that “lockdown is storing up problems which could then lead to a tsunami of referrals.” The (by comparison) rather more muted claim that the pandemic was having a “major impact” on mental health came in the reporting of a questionnaire survey conducted later that summer2. The current president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who has echoed his predecessor’s use of the tsunami analogy, attracted headlines towards the end of 2020 by suggesting that the consequences for the nation’s mental health will be the greatest since the second world war3. The doom-laden tone has persisted into this year, with The Prince’s Trust declaring4 that “The pandemic has taken a “devastating toll” on young people’s mental health” and a report from Bradford in West Yorkshire suggesting5 that “The pandemic has had a deep impact on children” who are “a lost tribe in the pandemic”.

There’s a tiresomeness to this sort of coverage, with its implication – familiar to those who regret the stigmatising of mental disorders – that there is something frightening and uncontrollable going on. But melodrama has other more tangible disadvantages.

First is the lost opportunity to conduct, and demonstrate how to conduct, a balanced discussion about the difficulties and uncertainties that attend the interpretation of data. Much of the media coverage consists of anecdotes – the personal interest stories so favoured by journalists – or small-scale interview studies. Data on health service contacts are problematic because of the degree to which disruption caused by the pandemic changes the relation between population prevalence of disorders and attendance rates. So what is, for now, the best evidence probably resides in population surveys.

However, results from self-report symptom questionnaires require more cautious interpretation than they are often given. Self-reported symptoms are mainly markers of distress, and although very high scores can be an indication of mental disorder the likelihood that is so depends upon the context. Two studies that have taken repeat measures suggest that most of the distress created by conditions during lockdown resolves quite quickly 6,7. The major impact headlined in one report2 proved due to a difference between 10% (previously) and 12% (at the time of the survey) in endorsement of a question about thoughts of suicide but did not spell out how often such thoughts are an accompaniment of distress and lead neither to suicide attempts nor to suicide – suicidal thoughts in population surveys are about 1000 times more common than suicides in the same population.

A bias in thinking about attribution arises with this use of language. A few attempts have been made to link Government policy to an increase in mental health problems among the young8, but for the most part no explicit suggestions are made. Instead the resort to analogies with war or natural disaster and talk of unprecedented crisis implicitly leads to foregrounding of the pandemic as the main explanation for mental health problems. To be sure, there are stresses in the current situation but there are also longer-term forces at play9-11. Years of government austerity strategy have done great damage not just to mental health services but to community assets, employment stability and family security – the main resources that constitute resilience for the most vulnerable in society.

Mental health is a vague umbrella term that is used to cover everything from the boredom and frustration that so many of us feel for being unable to see friends or go out socially, to severe mental illness. Not all mental health problems require treatment from the mental health services. Even before the pandemic something like a third of those identified in the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey12 as having depression had not been so diagnosed by a professional. A third of adults referred to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service do not attend for the first appointment – voting with their feet 13.

Of course we need better mental health services. We also need to repair the damage done by years of austerity to schools, community resources and the quality of life of the poor and disabled. And the mental health services need to be planning about exactly where their efforts are best placed – blanket statements about mental health do not help with thinking about who needs exactly what sort of assistance, either preventive or therapeutic. These are challenging tasks the public and government support for which isn’t going to be recruited by melodrama rather than reasoned analysis and careful presentation of the facts.

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  6. Fancourt D, Steptoe A, Bu F. Trajectories of anxiety and depressive symptoms during enforced isolation due to COVID-19 in England: a longitudinal observational study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2020 Dec 9.
  7. Shevlin, Mark and Butter, Sarah and McBride, Orla and Murphy, Jamie and Gibson-Miller, Jilly and Hartman, Todd K. and Levita, Liat and Mason, Liam and Martinez, Anton P. and McKay, Ryan and Stocks, Thomas V.A. and Bennett, Kate and Hyland, Philip and Bentall, Richard P., Modelling Changes in Anxiety-Depression and Traumatic Stress During the First Wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the UK: Evidence for Population Heterogeneity in Longitudinal Change. Available at SSRN: or
  8. Townsend, E COVID-19 policies in the UK and consequences for mental health, The Lancet Psychiatry, 2020; 7(2): 1014-1015,
  9. British Medical Association. Cutting away at our children’s futures: austerity and child health. accessed 12 February 2021
  10. Cummins I. The Impact of Austerity on Mental Health Service Provision: A UK Perspective. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Jun 1;15(6):1145. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15061145.
  11. accessed 12 February 2021
  12. Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2014 accessed 12 February 2021
  13. Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Annual report 2019-20 accessed 12 February 2021

A shorter version if this comment appears in BMJ Opinion

Allan House

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