An ambitious mental health study is intent on gauging the world’s emotional state. The Mental Health Million Project had its first full scale launch in 2020, offering an exceptional look at a truly exceptional time: mental health status during a pandemic.
The Mental Health Million Project is a 47 question survey, distributed online, that sums up a mental health “quotient” (MHQ). Created by Sapien Labs, which released a report on March 15, offers comparisons of aggregate mental wellbeing though six functional dimensions. In 2020, it focused across eight English-speaking countries. Data collection began in April 2020, just as the lockdowns began.
Roughly 49,000 responses garnered a unique snapshot of the COVID-19 impact, as well as the repercussions from other long-term global issues.
“Our goal is to identify the relationships between life experience, brain physiology and mental outcomes,” Sapien Labs founder and chief scientist Dr. Tara Thiaragarajan tells Parentology. “We started out by looking for an assessment of mental wellbeing that fit our criteria of spanning all mental health disorders and also providing a comprehensive view of mental wellbeing that included the positive elements of mental function.”
MHQ — Who’s Most at Risk?
The project’s initial 2019 survey queried only a small sample: a little over 2000 responses. The 2020 official launch was far larger. Still, meaningful comparisons can be drawn, especially in light of COVID-19 and the April 2020 lockdowns.
Some striking contrasts include:
- An aggregate drop in overall wellbeing, with a clinical mental health risk increase from 14% to 26%.
- There’s a crisis among young adults. The MHQ scores were 86 points lower in 18-24-year-olds compared to 65+ adults. Young adults also had the largest gender gap, with more women experiencing mental health problems than men.
- Nonbinary and 3rd-gender respondents had the worst MHQ scores and the highest suicide risk.
- In terms of the three elements for good mental health, sleep, social interaction, and exercise, there was a huge impact. Those with poor sleep scored 86 points lower, 66 points lower for rare face-to-face social interactions, and 46 points lower for never exercising.
- The United Kingdom is struggling the worst from a mental health standpoint. The best scores were in Singapore and the US.
It seems that COVID-19 played a starring role in the mental health decline of young adults, and especially among non-binary and 3rd gender groups.
This was an alarming finding, raising questions in the report: “…the vastly greater presence of strange and unwanted thoughts, substantial challenges in focus and concentration, and feelings of hopelessness in the 18-24 age group are warning signs of more worrying forces at play. What if these challenges persist as they transition to middle age and beyond? What are the consequences of a society that lacks focus and concentration and where unwanted, strange and obsessive thoughts run amok?”
The study’s data should have an impact on policy making for the future.
“In a very macro sense, government agencies such as Health and Human Services in the United States, which have strategic goals around strengthening the social and economic wellbeing of Americans across the lifespan, could make use of this data to understand at-risk groups and the drivers of mental wellbeing challenges and use this to inform social and economic policy as well as the design of programs. The data will also provide a way to track whether major policy changes or interventions are having an impact,” Dr. Thiaragarajan says.
The Project Will Continue To Grow
The Mental Health Million Project aims to include one million responses, hopefully in the next year or two. And, as the pandemic slowly ceases through vaccination efforts, socializing and other group activities should return to more “normal” levels. This could greatly affect the 2021 results, hopefully in a positive way.
“We do expect it to look better. It will be very interesting to see how much better and we will track it across 2021,” says Dr. Thiaragarajan.
Not all researchers agree that the post pandemic trauma will be short lived. A recent article in Nature pointed out that, after 9/11, “A study of more than 36,000 New York residents and rescue workers revealed that more than 14 years after the attack, 14% still had post-traumatic stress disorder and 15% experienced depression — much higher rates than in comparable populations (5% and 8%, respectively).” And clinical psychologist Luana Marques, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who is monitoring the mental-health impacts of the crisis in US populations, isn’t optimistic. “I don’t think this is going to go back to baseline anytime soon,” she told Nature.
In the meantime, the study’s current results should provide a heads up for parents and other family members, especially in families with young adults.
And, the report’s conclusions provide an urgency to address these issues.
“Altogether we advocate for embedding a population-based approach to mental wellbeing into social and economic policy. We also join a growing call for greater research investment in understanding the drivers of the mental health crisis of young adults and those who are nonbinary/third gender, and in understanding the wake-time factors that impact sleep. Finally, we encourage a greater role for schools, universities and companies in actively managing the mental wellbeing of their students and workforce,” the report stated.