COVID’s second wave has hit men the hardest psychologically, mental health study says

AARHUS, Denmark — The last 12 months have been tough for everyone, regardless of gender. That being said, a new study out of Denmark finds that while women initially showed greater signs of mental distress during the first round of Spring 2020 lockdowns, it’s now men facing the most mental health challenges during COVID’s “second wave.”

“We see that men’s psychological well-being is lower in the November-December measurement than it was during the spring lockdown, while the trend has gone in the opposite direction for women,” says study author Søren Dinesen Østergaard, professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine and affiliated with the Department of Affective Disorders at Aarhus University Hospital, in a media release.

This survey is actually the third such project conducted by the research team, intended to gauge how well people are coping mentally with the COVID-19 pandemic. Study authors conducted their first report during the early days of the pandemic and first lockdowns. A second was held in April, just after infections started to decline somewhat in Denmark. This latest survey looks at mental health between November and December 2020.

Mental health worsening in the second wave

The team used the World Health Organization’s well-being index, consisting of five items, for the study. During normal times, that scale usually helps doctors determine if a patient should receive treatment for depression. The process is simple; a patient answers the five questions and those responses are graded to produce a score between 0 and 100. The higher the score the better, with any score below 50 being a likely sign of depression.

In comparison to scores from April, the average score in November decreased by roughly four points for men. Mental health scores dropped by two and a half points for women. Compared to the first surveys however, female scores actually increased by about one and a half points and male scores decreased by one and a half points.

It’s worth noting that by the end of 2020 there were still more women with a score under 50 than men (27% of females versus 23% of males).

“Of course, we cannot know for sure that the course of the corona pandemic is the cause of the variations we see in the psychological well-being. But the results fit this explanation. The onset of winter may, however, also play a role,” Østergaard adds.

Winter’s role in the second wave downturn

The researcher points out that the number of Danes who are diagnosed with depression spikes during winter time. He emphasizes that women tend to experience more seasonal mood variations in mood, even though the results point to fewer women experiencing a decline in psychological well-being later in 2020.

“The gender difference in our results is interesting, but we cannot determine the underlying mechanisms based on the data at hand. Perhaps it has to do with uncertainties related to employment. The job market has been negatively affected by the pandemic, especially the private sector, which occupies more men than women, so perhaps it is a question of men worrying more about their employment prospects and their family’s economic situation than women. This is something we will try to address in the next round of the survey,” he concludes.

The study is published in Acta Neuropsychiatrica.

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