A new article by Karolinska Institute (KI) and University of Pavia (UNIPV) has been published in Frontiers in Psychiatry
Background: The COVID-19 pandemic is commonly believed to have increased common mental disorders (CMD, i.e., depression and anxiety), either directly due to COVID-19 contractions (death of near ones or residual conditions), or indirectly by increasing stress, economic uncertainty, and disruptions in daily life resulting from containment measure. Whereas studies reporting on initial changes in self-reported data frequently have reported increases in CMD, pandemic related changes in CMD related to primary care utilization are less well known. Analyzing time series of routinely and continuously sampled primary healthcare data from Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, and Latvia, we aimed to characterize the impact of the pandemic on CMD recorded prevalence in primary care. Furthermore, by relating these changes to country specific time-trajectories of two classes of containment measures, we evaluated the differential impact of containment strategies on CMD rates. Specifically, we wanted to test whether school restrictions would preferentially affect age groups corresponding to those of school children or their parents.
Methods: For the four investigated countries, we collected time-series of monthly counts of unique CMD patients in primary healthcare from the year 2015 (or 2017) until 2021. Using pre-pandemic timepoints to train seasonal Auto Regressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) models, we predicted healthcare utilization during the pandemic. Discrepancies between observed and expected time series were quantified to infer pandemic related changes. To evaluate the effects of COVID-19 measures on CMD related primary care utilization, the predicted time series were related to country specific time series of levels of social distancing and school restrictions.
Results: In all countries except Latvia there was an initial (April 2020) decrease in CMD care prevalence, where largest drops were found in Sweden (Prevalence Ratio, PR = 0.85; 95% CI 0.81–0.90), followed by Netherlands (0.86; 95% CI 0.76–1.02) and Norway (0.90; 95% CI 0.83–0.98). Latvia on the other hand experienced increased rates (1.25; 95% CI 1.08–1.49). Whereas PRs in Norway and Netherlands normalized during the latter half of 2020, PRs stayed low in Sweden and elevated in Latvia. The overall changes in PR during the pandemic year 2020 was significantly changed only for Sweden (0.91; 95% CI 0.90–0.93) and Latvia (1.20; 95% CI 1.14–1.26). Overall, the relationship between containment measures and CMD care prevalence were weak and non-significant. In particular, we could not observe any relationship of school restriction to CMD care prevalence for the age groups best corresponding to school children or their parents.
Conclusion: Common mental disorders prevalence in primary care decreased during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in all countries except from Latvia, but normalized in Norway and Netherlands by the latter half of 2020. The onset of the pandemic and the containment strategies were highly correlated within each country, limiting strong conclusions on whether restriction policy had any effects on mental health. Specifically, we found no evidence of associations between school restrictions and CMD care prevalence. Overall, current results lend no support to the common belief that the pandemic severely impacted the mental health of the general population as indicated by healthcare utilization, apart from in Latvia. However, since healthcare utilization is affected by multiple factors in addition to actual need, future studies should combine complementary types of data to better understand the mental health impacts of the pandemic.
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