Mental health took a huge plunge across the UK after the first month of the Covid-19 lockdown, according to a new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. While the reason for the decline in mental health is complex, it appears that the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic was arguably the most significant factor.
Researchers asked almost 17,500 people living in the UK about their mental health in the last week of April 2020, during the first month of lockdown, and compared it to average scores before the pandemic. The results were clear: worrying levels of mental stress were seen in notably more people during the lockdown.
The survey found more than 27 percent of study participants reported a level of mental distress that is potentially clinically significant in late April, compared with less than 19 percent of people before the pandemic took hold.
Women appear to have experienced some of the biggest declines in mental health. Around one in three women had reported clinically significant levels of mental distress, compared with one in five men. However, the researchers warned that mental distress in men may manifest differently and this requires further investigation. Other groups that saw significant increases in mental distress were young people aged 16 to 24 years old, people with preschool children, and people living in low-income households.
“While Covid-19 infection is a greater physical health risk to older people, our study suggests that young people’s mental health is being disproportionately affected by efforts to stop transmission of the virus. We would recommend policies focused on women, young people, and those with preschool-aged children as a priority to prevent future mental illness," Professor Kathryn Abel, joint senior author and professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Manchester, explained in a statement.
The reasons for the decline in mental health were not measured for the study. However, the researchers argue their results are tightly linked to the pandemic’s socioeconomic fallout on mental health inequalities. It's unclear how this situation will play out as lockdown measures continue to ease and some degree of normality returns, although some experts are anticipating "an explosion" of mental health referrals towards the end of this year.
“The pandemic has brought people’s differing life circumstances into stark contrast,” Sally McManus, joint senior author and an expert in the measurement of mental health at City, University of London.
“We found that, overall, pre-existing inequalities in mental health for women and young people have widened. At the same time new inequalities have emerged, such as for those living with pre-school children. These findings should help inform social and educational policies aimed at mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health, so that we can try to avoid a rise in mental illness in the years to come.”
It’s worth considering that much of this data was self-reported by an online survey, although before the pandemic, the questionnaire was carried out in person or over the phone using an interview format. Self-reporting is not necessarily the most effective way to evaluate mental health and many studies have highlighted its shortcomings. For example, men are said to be more reluctant to report mental distress, especially in a self-reported scenario.
Nevertheless, given the restrictions of the Covid-19 outbreak, the study still manages to achieve the first peer-reviewed study to track mental health across a population from before the Covid-19 pandemic and into the early lockdown period.