A McGill University-led study found that, contrary to many other reports, the COVID-19 pandemic has not taken a great toll on most people's mental health.

Billed as the "world's most comprehensive study on COVID-19 mental health," the research team included members from McMaster University, the University of Toronto and others. It looked at data from 137 other studies in multiple languages from around the globe, primarily from high or middle-income countries. Three-quarters of the participants were adults, and a quarter were between 10 and 19 years old.

"Claims that the mental health of most people has deteriorated significantly during the pandemic have been based primarily on individual studies that are 'snapshots' of a particular situation, in a particular place, at a particular time," said lead researcher Brett Thombs. "They typically don't involve any long-term comparison with what had existed before or came after."

It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.

Thombs said the findings were a surprise.

"We thought like everybody else that there would be a lot bigger impact on mental health in the pandemic," he told CTV News.

The researchers found that the mental health symptoms of the population as a whole changed very little from before the pandemic to during the height of it when restrictions, curfews, lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine passports and other policies were in place.

Thombs said that the study shows the resilience of people, no matter where they live, to navigate changes to their routines and sometimes even thrive when shifted out of their routines.

"This is by far the most comprehensive study on COVID-19 mental health in the world, and it shows that, in general, people have been much more resilient than many have assumed," said researcher Ying Sun from the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital.


Thombs added that the pandemic and mental health are not black-and-white phenomena with simple answers.

"It's definitely not an overarching mental health crisis or a mental health tsunami," said Thombs. "The pandemic's been messy. It's meant different things for different people."

researcher Brett Thombs

Thombs did not discount those whose mental health was affected by the pandemic, but added that many found new hobbies, reduced their commute, exercised more or found other ways to improve their lives.

"Our study doesn't apply to any one person, but what we did find, for the most part, there weren't changes from before the pandemic, although we did find some," he said. "This was much more nuanced than people were saying and there is a lot of resilience out there. People have actually done some really good things during the pandemic."

Some groups that formed via Zoom or in other ways, continued beyond the lockdown orders and curfews, Thombs said.


The study did find that some women experienced the greatest drop in mental health during the pandemic, with anxiety, depression and general mental health issues increasing in some.

"They weren't huge, but they were there," said Thombs.

Also, those in health care, elder care and other stressful jobs found the pandemic more taxing than others.

"This is concerning and suggests that some women, as well as some people in other groups, have experienced changes for the worse in their mental health and will need ongoing access to mental health support," said McMaster professor Danielle Rice. "The Canadian federal and provincial governments along with governments elsewhere in the world have worked to increase access to mental health services during the pandemic, and should ensure that these services continue to be available."

Thombs admitted as well that those working in health care, elder care, and emergency services were not part of the studies, which could affect some of the data. In addition, as most of the studies looked at were from middle or upper-middle-income populations, the world's poor are mostly absent.


Thombs said that although the study showed no signs that mental health issues spiked during the pandemic, it does not mean that there isn't an issue with services and support for those with mental health issues in Quebec and Canada.

"It's important to say that whatever the level is, that we are not doing a good job here in Canada or here in Quebec in making sure that people who do have mental health needs were getting service in a timely fashion when they need it, and getting the kind of service and the amount of service they needed, even before the pandemic," he said.

"If we're going to talk about a crisis, that, in my opinion, is a crisis that was here before the pandemic, and it's still there."