Confinement and restrictive measures imposed by health ministries caused 53 million more depressive disorders in women and young people.
The irresponsible measures adopted worldwide shook the health of the planet because of the impact of unnecessary and unhealthy interventions directed by governments, which instead of improving people’s health, actually made it worse.
The virus that has allegedly infected 236 million people prompted health authorities to delay diagnoses and medical consultations, which fueled an epidemic of poor mental health that is very visible today.
An international study published in The Lancet magazine estimates that cases of major depression and anxiety disorder in the world have increased by 28% and 26% respectively. This means that in 2020 there were 53 million depressive disorders and 76 million more anxiety diagnoses than expected.
The population groups most affected by this avalanche of poor mental health have been women and young people, according to researchers.
At the start of the observations, they could already see it coming. As the covid restrictions progressed, psychiatrists consulted for the report, saw an incessant trickle up of emergencies and visits with new mental health problems or clinical pictures of mental ailments aggravated after confinement and the stoppage of social interaction became more acute.
An invisible epidemic was brewing in the shadow of the coronavirus, but professionals were unable to measure it, admits Víctor Pérez, head of Psychiatry at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona: “We knew it was something that was going to happen. It was what we felt in the consultations.”
The restrictions were and continue to be responsible for creating the perfect breeding ground for poor mental health to emerge: confinements, lack of social interaction, deaths without mourning, uncertainty and economic instability fueled emotional distress.
And the difficulties in accessing the health system, with saturated primary care and ended up worsening conditions for those who needed but could not find health support. The symptoms got worse as the door to treatment was shut on patients’ faces for the best part of the past 18 months.
A World Health Organization (WHO) survey in 130 countries found that 60% suffered interruptions in psychotherapy services for vulnerable people.
The Lancet study, led by researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, now puts the situation black on white and, after conducting a meta-analysis with data on the prevalence of depression and anxiety in 203 countries around the world during 2020, the study shows the impact that restrictive measures had in mental health: depression and anxiety are growing by more than 25% worldwide, although not homogeneously. The countries most affected by government restrictions had a higher burden of disease.
The research reviewed more than 5,000 studies and analyzed nearly 50 investigations conducted in 2020. Thus, the scientists collected data on the prevalence of these ailments and compared them with references from the pre-pandemic era.
Then, with a modeling tool, they estimated the change in prevalence between the two periods, also using indicators of the impact of government restrictions, infection rate and the mobility of people.
Despite study limitations, such as a lack of quality data in some countries or figures based on probable cases of these conditions, the model estimates suggest that in the absence of a pandemic, there would have been 193 million cases of major depressive disorder; about 2,471 cases per 100,000 people worldwide in 2020. However, the analysis shows that there were 246 million cases, or 3,153 per 100,000 people.
The worse the restrictions on movement and medical attention, the more prevalent were the cases of mental ailments.
According to Damián Santomauro, researcher at the Queensland Mental Health Research Center and author of the study, a comparison between countries cannot be made “due to the absence of high-quality data in most” of the States and the margin of uncertainty around the estimates by countries.
What researchers have found is that there are particularly vulnerable population groups. For example, women. And the reasons are several: for example, that they assume more domestic and caregiving responsibilities due to the closure of schools or when family members become ill.
There is also evidence that domestic violence has increased during periods of confinement, and women are more victims of domestic violence than men, adds the researcher.
According to the study, more than 35 million additional cases of depression were in women, while in men they were about 18 million. Under normal conditions, women already have twice the risk of depression as men.
“There are biological causes, such as that women are subjected to a more complex hormonal rhythm, which changes a lot. And situations such as childbirth or postpartum increase the risk. But later, the role of women in society also influences, because they are the ones who mostly work outside the home and take on the upbringing of children.”
In addition, it is more difficult for men to consult the symptoms and go to the doctor: “They use self-medication more, especially alcohol. In fact, alcoholism is more frequent in men”.
The other major victims are young people, Santomauro confirms: “They have been affected by the closure of schools and by the toughest restrictions that prevent them from interacting with their peers. Furthermore, this population group is also more likely to be unemployed after economic crises ”.
The additional prevalence of these disorders peaked among people aged 20-24 with 1,118 additional cases of major depressive disorder per 100,000 and 1,331 additional cases of anxiety disorders per 100,000.
Although this study has only focused, for now, on depression and anxiety, Santomauro warns that there is emerging evidence that suggests that the prevalence of eating disorders has increased during the course of the pandemic.
“In some cases, child and adolescent care centers have seen the cases of eating disorders double. Just as depression and anxiety came from the collapse of the system, so did eating disorders.
The study researchers warn of “the urgent need to strengthen mental health systems to address the growing burden” of these ailments. “The strategies must promote mental well-being and target the determinants of poor mental health which were aggravated by so-called sanitary restrictions.”
There is a need to implement a plan to help patients and the hiring of more personnel. “What this pandemic has brought is visibility, it has exposed the structural deficiencies in mental health.”
“These patients have probably not been cared for or have been treated in a precarious way, but this avalanche of depression and anxiety, will be reduced when things go back to normal,” some psychiatrists say. “It will not grow at 25% every year”, they say.