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The corona crisis is taking a greater toll on women’s psychological well-being

Living with the threat of the coronavirus may have a greater negative effect on the psychological well-being of women compared to men, states Professor Søren Dinesen Østergaard from Aarhus University on the basis of a newly-published study.

2020.04.27 | Nanna Jespersgård

We’re living in a time where none of us can say what tomorrow will bring, neither privately nor professionally, Søren Dinesen Østergaard says. Photo: Melissa B. Kirkeby Yildirim, AU.

The psychological well-being of both men and women has been low since society closed down in mid-March, and women are primarily the ones who are reacting to the current living conditions.

This is shown by a survey conducted by Søren Dinesen Østergaard and colleagues. He is professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University and affiliated with the Department of Affective Disorders at Aarhus University Hospital – Psychiatry.

"We’ve shown that the proportion of Danish women who are at high risk of depression grew from just under 25 per cent in 2016 to almost 29 per cent in the period from 31 March to 6 April this year, which is two to three weeks after the lockdown caused by the coronavirus," says Søren Dinesen Østergaard on the results of the survey, which have just been published in the scientific journal Acta Neuropsychiatrica.

“I am not particularly surprised by these findings. We’re living in a time where none of us can say what tomorrow will bring, neither privately nor professionally, and where the things we’ve been looking forward to have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely," he adds.

Based on WHO's well-being index

The two population studies which the survey compares are based on the WHO’s well-being index, WHO-5. This brief questionnaire is sometimes used by general practitioners to assess whether a patient is at risk for depression. The principle behind the questionnaire is to use five questions as a basis for a total score which should preferably be as high as possible. If someone scores under 50, the risk for depression is substantial, explains Søren Dinesen Østergaard.

"The proportion of women who score below fifty is appreciably higher than it is for men, though this isn’t a surprise as depression is approximately twice as prevalent in women compared to men. What is noteworthy is the increase of almost four percentage points – corresponding to an increase of 17 per cent – since 2016, while the increase among men is smaller and not statistically significant," says Søren Dinesen Østergaard.

He adds that while there may, of course, be other reasons than the corona crisis behind the marked fall in women’s well-being, the results are in line with other studies of the psychological reaction to the corona pandemic.

"I’ve just seen a report from a major American insurance company which shows an increase of more than twenty per cent in the number of prescriptions filled for anxiolytics, antidepressants and sleep medication in the period from mid-February until mid-March this year. The insurance company has only published sex-specific figures for anxiolytics, where the increase was 23 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women, which is consistent with the tendency we observe for psychological well-being among Danes," explains Søren Dinesen Østergaard, who is far from convinced that women naturally have a greater tendency to react to the corona crisis than men.

"We have a hypothesis that men are also suffering during this time – but that it simply manifests differently. We should be able to say more about this once the next part of our survey has been conducted," he adds.

Contact your general practitioner

Søren Dinesen Østergaard is worried about the results of the study for one particularly reason.

"General practitioners report a considerable reduction in the number of people contacting them during the corona crisis, and the same is true of referrals to the hospital-based psychiatric services. This most likely means that many people with both newly occurring and existing mental disorders are not getting the help they need. If someone experiences signs of anxiety or depression, I would strongly encourage them to call their general practitioner.

The research results – more information

  • The study was carried out as a survey conducted by Epinion based on the WHO-5 well-being index. Epinion received payment for carrying out the survey. A total of 2458 persons participated in the survey, which is weighted so that the results are representative of the Danish population and comparable with data from a similar study from 2016.
  • The following researchers also contributed to the study: Professor Kim Mannemar Sønderskov and Professor Peter Thisted Dinesen from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen, respectively; and Postdoc Ziggi Ivan Santini from the Department of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark.
  • The study is supported by a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
  • Direct link to the abstract in the scientific artivle The depressive state of Denmark during the COVID-19 pandemic in Acta Neuropsychiatrica.


Professor Søren Dinesen Østergaard
Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University
Department of Affective Disorders, Aarhus University Hospital – Psychiatry
Email: SOEOES@rm.dk
Mobile: (+45) 6128 2753

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