First Global Mental Health Report Of Its Kind Unsurprisingly Shows Huge Decline In 2020

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The first annual report of the Mental Health Million project has been published and it shows how complex events unfolding related to the pandemic has led to a general decrease in the mental wellbeing of people across the globe.

The report is set to measure and track the mental wellbeing of the global population with the aim to understand the drivers of mental health and inform and guide effective policies and interventions in the future.  

In its first year, the report used data collected from 49,000 English-speaking people from eight countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Singapore. Around 2,000 people in each country were surveyed in 2019, and the rest last year. While the samples may not be fully representative of a country, the analysis provides some important insights into the state of mental health around the world. Unsurprisingly, after 2020, it is not good news.

The report used data from the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), an online anonymous self-assessment tool, which shows a resulting score on a scale ranging from -100 to 200, revealing insights into people's cognitive abilities, emotional regulation and outlook, perception of self, the nature of their relationships with others, and the connection between mind and body. The report found the overall mental wellbeing score for 2020 was 66, down from 90 in 2019, meaning an average 8 percent drop between 2019 and 2020.

The decline in mental health was more pronounced in younger people, women, and non-binary people, showing how mental wellbeing is intimately linked to life circumstances, so can’t be assumed the same between different groups. The percentage of participants with a clinical level of risk increased from 14 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in 2020.

“The report highlights the importance of a real-time view of how changing environment and circumstance impacts mental wellbeing and how we might use such a view to better manage our collective mental wellbeing,” Dr Tara Thiagarajan, co-author of this report, told IFLScience.

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Click on the dots for highlights of the data for each country, including the top mental health challenges people are affected by.

The obvious event that shaped people's mental wellbeing in 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-seven percent of the people sampled in the report experienced a range of negative social, financial, and health consequences. In particular, people with pre-existing conditions and those who could no longer make ends meet were the two demographics with the worst reported mental wellbeing.

The report also showed that sleep, social interaction, and exercise played a huge role in mental wellbeing although the relative impact of them across specific facets of mental heath differed.

“The data shows that financial challenges and social isolation have had the widest impact on mental wellbeing around the world. On the other hand, while a smaller group, the 2% who could not receive critical care for other medical conditions due to the pandemic had the worst mental wellbeing and perhaps suffered the most,” explained Dr Thiagarajan, who leads Sapien Labs, the US non-profit responsible for the Mental Health Million project.

The situation is dire for young people in general. People aged 18 to 24 scored 86 points lower on the MHQ scale, a drop of 27 percent, compared to adults aged 65+, with mental wellbeing decreasing with each younger generation. Forty-four percent of the population of 18-24 years olds reported being at a clinical level of risk. The report shows that younger people have had to deal with compromised self-worth, sadness, and distress.

The differences can be seen also across the gender spectrum. Mental wellbeing was statistically higher in men than in women across all countries. The gender gap in mental health also scales with age, with younger women struggling more than younger men.

However, both groups fared better than non-binary/third gender people, with over 50 percent at clinical risk, reporting more suicidal thoughts and intentions compared to other groups. Across the eight countries surveyed, there are some legal protections for non-binary/third gender people but reports indicate not enough is currently being done to support them. Non-binary and transgender people still don't have equal rights to identity in many English-speaking countries.

“What we can see is that these different groups have distinct challenges and can't necessarily be painted with the same brush of say depression or anxiety. Rather it will help to understand the specific profiles of different groups and their underlying drivers in order to build interventions that target those root causes,” Dr Thiagarajan told IFLScience. “Further analysis of this data (which is openly available for the research and non-profit communities) can provide more in-depth perspectives that can help guide this effort.”

The report calls for using population-based studies on mental wellbeing when drafting social and economic policy and for more investment in understanding how to best tackle the mental health crisis for young adults and non-binary people globally.  

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