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Mental health in Covid times

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected our mental health? Moreover, are we able to bounce back from this?

A new study commissioned by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) – to be presented during the corresponding STOA event on 25 January – shows that Europeans are actually pretty resilient in general. On top of that, a European research project, DynaMORE, has been working on mathematical modelling of mental health and an app that helps the user to prevent stress. They generated and validated the first computer (also called ‘in silico’) model of stress resilience. “This will transform the way we are doing prevention”, says project coordinator Prof Kalisch.

As the Covid crisis drags on, including the measures that come with it, our mental wellbeing is under pressure. According to a Belgian survey, the number of Belgians who indicated suffering from anxiety and depressive feelings was never this high and is comparable with the beginning of the pandemic: 21% of the adult respondents say they suffer from depression and 24% deal with anxiety. “Especially this last Omicron wave has taken a heavy toll on those who thought the worst was behind us”, says Belgian researcher Stefaan Demarest of Sciensano.

Another study published last November stated that 36% of French students surveyed said they had depressive symptoms during the first lockdown, and 50% reported the same symptoms during the second one. The same trend was found regarding anxiety symptoms, with 27.5% of the students surveyed reporting them, while the figure stood at 16.9% for non-students. On top of that, 12.7% of students reported suicidal thoughts, compared to 7.9% among non-students.

Daily infection rates

Before the pandemic, mental disorders were the leading cause of health-related burdens on society, with depressive and anxiety disorders being its leading contributors. The pandemic seems to have made matters much worse. A recent worldwide study in the Lancet found that the daily Covid-19 infection rates in the news and the reductions in mobility could be associated with increased prevalence of major depressive and anxiety disorder. According to this study, women were affected more by the pandemic than men, while younger age groups were more affected than older age groups.

At the Leibniz Institute for stress resilience in Mainz, Germany, they witness similar trends in the EU.

Klaus LiebProfessor Klaus Lieb, Scientific Director of the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR),Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Medical centre in Mainz: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been having an enormous impact on us and our mental wellbeing. Not only have the immediate disease-related threats had an effect, so have the policy measures that aimed to fight the pandemic. Travel-related restrictions and school closures have imposed tremendous challenges on the public at large, as well as specific population groups like children and adolescents or employees.”Read the full interview

Together with his colleague Dr Angela Kunzler, he undertook a substantial literature study for the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future on Science and Technology (STOA). Its title: ‘How are we coping with the pandemic? Mental health and resilience amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the EU‘.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Luckily, according to the study experts, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Psychologist and researcher Dr Kunzler says that even though they indeed found “a consistent increase of stress-related mental symptoms (anxiety, depression, general psychological distress) in the general population during the pandemic compared to before”. Surprisingly, but also understandably, in the aftermath of the initial shock of the disease outbreak, people developed various strategies to cope with the pandemic.

Dr Kunzler explains: “For example, a positive reappraisal of the pandemic and the related containment measures might have contributed to rather resilient responses over the further course of the pandemic.” A positive reappraisal can be understood as a positive reframing of your thoughts, finding something to be grateful about even in a challenging situation like the current pandemic. This is part of resilience, the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, or other significant sources of stress.

Angela KunzlerDr Angela Kunzler, Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research: “We do know from resilience research and previous studies on other macro-stressors (for example, the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001) that resilience is not a rarely observed phenomenon. Instead, after potentially traumatic events, most people either show stable trajectories of mental health or a temporarily increased mental burden which is followed by a recovery of mental health.”Read the full interview

Mathematical modelling and positive reappraisal

In the meantime, the EU-funded project DynaMORE pursues the goal of alleviating the stress-related burden on society by advancing the mathematical modelling of mental health and, on the basis of this, by developing an app for positive reappraisal.

“Mathematical modelling helps us to deepen our scientific understanding of mental health”, says project coordinator Prof Raffael Kalisch: “We are generating and validating the first in-silico model of stress resilience and using it as a basis for developing an entirely new mobile health (mHealth) app for the primary prevention of stress disorders.”

According to the experts, the app (still in an experimental phase) has great potential for commercial exploitation: “We anticipate that our solutions will be pandemic-proof and facilitate coping with future pandemics for individuals and for societies at large.”

Raffael Kalisch profileRaffael Kalisch, professor for Human Neuroimaging and head of the Neuroimaging Center (NIC) at the Johannes Gutenberg University Medical Center, Mainz: “I think we are learning a lot about resilience mechanisms, but simultaneously we are heading for very efficient ways of promoting mental health that make use of the latest digital technologies, are scalable, cost-effective, and easily accessible, including in times of pandemics and in low-income populations. They also have the advantage that they do not stop at national borders and can be applied anywhere. I am hoping that this will transform the way we are doing prevention and that our solutions will be adopted on a large scale by our health care systems.”Read the full interview

Useful links

• More info about reappraisal and ReApp, the app for boosting positive appraisal
• You can already get an experimental version by sending an email to reappstudy@gmail.com
• STOA online event: ‘Coping with the pandemic: Psychosocial consequences of the corona crisis’, Tuesday 25 January 2022 at 15:00h CET


Related content:
Covid-19 and how to protect our mental health: ‘Social support, financial stability, activities and psychological resilience’
Using technology to cope with stress-related mental health problems

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