What a study on COVID’s mental health effects left out

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A recent study that found “minimal” effects on mental health under the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have left out vulnerable and underrepresented populations.

The BMJ – a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal – published research that compared mental health symptoms before and during the pandemic from mostly high-income European and Asian countries.

While the study found depression worsened a little among older people, women, university students and those belonging to sexual/gender minorities, it did not look at populations from lower income countries or particularly focus on children, young people, and individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Twitter users took to the platform to express how this study dismisses important perspectives on how the pandemic has affected the mental health of many vulnerable, marginalized communities.

Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin thinks it’s important to take young people’s experience into account, especially in order to address and resolve the mental health crisis. Spinks-Franklin is a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician and Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics for Baylor College of Medicine.

“Children are not little adults. Adults have agency and control over much of their lives, but children have to follow with what decisions adults make for them,” said Franklin in an email to Reckon. “During the pandemic, many children’s parents and primary caregivers died. There was significant learning loss in the U.S. due to prolonged remote learning, especially for children who live in resource-poor communities and attend underfunded schools.”

Last year, the CDC released new data that showed dramatic increases in rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. “I do not want parents to see the [BMJ] study and think everything is OK,” said Franklin. “Our children are still recovering from the traumas and disruptions they experienced during the peak of the pandemic.”

Vice President and Director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being Dr. Anita Chandra explains that in order to address the long-standing issues of unmet mental health needs – whether it’s for young people or older adults – a holistic approach is important.

“And not just in the ways that we sometimes do mental health studies where we’re looking at diagnosable mental health issues, which are important, whether it’s depression or anxiety,” said Chandra. “But really understanding the emotional well-being of kids today and what’s happened with this generation of kids and what will happen with this generation of kids?”

Being able to track the overall well-being of children (i.e., spiritual, social, physical and emotional well-being) on a consistent basis across the country could immensely improve programs and policies for unmet mental health needs that impact underrepresented populations.

“Sometimes we are reactive to issues when we need to be kind of ahead of the curve in terms of understanding where stresses and concerns for kids actually lie,” Chandra said. “There’s definitely a need for something a little bit more holistic and comprehensive, particularly in communities of young people that are underrepresented.”

It’s important to note that racial disparities are still prevalent in healthcare overall.

Based on a recent data published by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native people still fared worse than white people across the majority of examined measures of health, health care and social determinants of health.

As of 2021, Black and Hispanic children were over twice as likely to be food insecure than white children. And non-elderly American Indian & Alaska Native and Hispanic people were more than twice as likely to be uninsured than their white counterparts.

An updated brief by KFF also found 90% of U.S. adults believe the country is facing a mental health crisis three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharply contrasting with the BMJ study from high-income European and Asian countries.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Dr. Spinks-Franklin’s full position and title.

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

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