Pandemic linked to rising rates of depressive and anxiety disorders

18 October 2021

Cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders have increased by more than 25 per cent worldwide, according to a world-first study of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health.

The research, led by researchers from The University of Queensland’s School of Public HealthQueensland Centre for Mental Health Research and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (University of Washington) estimated people living in countries severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic have been most affected, especially women and younger people.

The study is the first to assess global impacts of the pandemic on major depressive and anxiety disorders, quantifying the prevalence and burden of the disorders by age, sex, and location in 204 countries and territories in 2020.

Study leader Dr Damian Santomauro said countries hit hardest by the pandemic in 2020 had the greatest rise in prevalence of the disorders.

“We estimated that cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders increased by 28 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively in 2020, with women affected more than men, and younger people affected more than older age groups,” Dr Santomauro said.

“Countries with high COVID-19 infection rates and major reductions in the movement of people – a consequence of measures such as lockdowns and school closures – were found to have the greatest increases in prevalence of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders.”

Other approaches to this research have generally focused on specific locations over a short window of time.

Dr Santomauro said mental health systems would need urgent strengthening to cope with the significant increase in cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, but taking no action should not be an option.

“Support services should be improved by promoting mental wellbeing, targeting factors contributing to poor mental health that have been made worse by the pandemic and improving treatment for those who develop a mental disorder,” Dr Santomauro said.

“Even before the pandemic, mental health-care systems in most countries have historically been under-resourced and disorganised in their service delivery – so meeting the added demand for mental health services due to COVID-19 will be challenging.”

Study co-author Dr Alize Ferrari said the study found that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated many existing social inequalities that predispose people to developing mental disorders.

“Sadly, for numerous reasons, women are likely to be more affected by the social and economic consequences of the pandemic as they often carry the load when it comes to additional caring and household responsibilities,” Dr Ferrari said.

“Women are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence, which has increased at various stages of the pandemic.

“School closures and wider restrictions limiting young people’s ability to learn and interact with their peers, combined with the increased risk of unemployment, also meant young people were more heavily impacted by major depressive and anxiety disorders during the pandemic.

“It is crucial that policymakers take underlying factors such as these into account as part of measures to strengthen mental health services.”

The study was published in The Lancet (DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02143-7) and was funded by Queensland Health, National Health and Medical Research Council and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Media: Kate Gadenne, Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research,, +61 (0)438 727 895; UQ Faculty of Medicine Media,, +61 (0)7 3365 5118.