Did the global pandemic trigger a worldwide mental health crisis? Here’s why those fears never played out

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Credit: Dianova
Credit: Dianova

As clinical scientists and research psychologists have pointed out, the coronavirus pandemic has created many conditions that might lead to psychological distress: sudden, widespread disruptions to people’s livelihoods and social connections; millions bereaved; and the most vulnerable subjected to long-lasting hardship. A global collapse in well-being has seemed inevitable.

We joined a mental-health task force, commissioned by The Lancet, in order to quantify the pandemic’s psychological effects. When we reviewed the best available data, we saw that some groups—including people facing financial stress—have experienced substantial, life-changing suffering. However, looking at the global population on the whole, we were surprised not to find the prolonged misery we had expected.

Early in the pandemic, our team observed in these studies what the media was reporting: Average levels of anxiety and depression—as well as broader psychological distress—climbed dramatically.

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But as spring turned to summer, something remarkable happened: Average levels of depression, anxiety, and distress began to fall. Some data sets even suggested that overall psychological distress returned to near-pre-pandemic levels by early summer 2020.

In order to make sense of these patterns, we looked back to a classic psychology finding: People are more resilient than they themselves realize.

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