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Science & research / Public health

Young adults among groups most likely to suffer pandemic-related mental health issues

By Andrew Sansom 21 Oct 2020 0

The first six weeks of the pandemic and lockdown had a significant impact on the UK population’s mental health and wellbeing, new analysis suggests.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow found young people, women, individuals from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with pre-existing mental health problems reported the worst mental health outcomes in the initial phase of the national lockdown.

The study, which is the first publication from a large-scale longitudinal research programme in collaboration with, and funded by, Samaritans, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), and the Mindstep Foundation, is described as the most detailed examination to date of the mental health and wellbeing of the UK adult population during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by the University of Glasgow’s Professor Rory O’Connor, chair in health psychology at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, the research found that suicidal thoughts increased over the first six weeks of the UK’s lockdown (with one in ten harbouring such thoughts by the end of this period). However, other factors related to suicide risk, such as symptoms of anxiety, levels of defeat, and entrapment decreased across the same period. Depressive symptoms and loneliness remained relatively stable but adversely affected.

Researchers surveyed a national sample of 3077 adults in the UK, assessing a range of mental health factors, including: pre-existing mental health problems; suicide attempts and self-harm; suicidal thoughts; depression; anxiety; feelings of defeat; feelings of entrapment; mental wellbeing; and loneliness.

The research looked at three ‘waves’ of lockdown between 31 March and 11 May. Participants have continued to be monitored throughout the pandemic, with further results due to be published in the coming months.

Young adults more prone to suicidal thoughts

Analysis of sub-groups showed worse mental health outcomes during the pandemic for females, young people (aged 18-29), those from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with pre-existing mental health problems. Males reported lower levels of depressive symptoms than females.

Younger adults (18-29 years) were more likely to report suicidal thoughts and higher levels of depressive symptoms than those aged 30-59 years and over 60.

Across all three waves, about one in four respondents (26.1 per cent) experienced at least moderate levels of depressive symptoms.

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared with those in higher socio-economic groups. This was also true for those with pre-existing mental health conditions compared with those without.

Commenting on the findings, Prof O’Connor said: “While public health measures such as lockdown have been necessary to protect the general population, we know the effects of COVID-19 on the population’s mental health and wellbeing are likely to be profound and long-lasting. The findings from our study, showing in particular the increasing rates of suicidal thoughts, especially among young adults, is concerning, and show that we must be vigilant to this at-risk group.

“As we move through this pandemic, investigating the trajectory of mental health and wellbeing is crucial to giving us a better understanding of the challenges people face during this difficult time. By having such analysis and information, we can formulate targeted mental health measures and interventions for those most in need as this pandemic continues, as well as being prepared for future.”

Billy Watson, chief executive of the SAMH, stressed that there must be investment in support, “particularly for those groups who have been most affected by the pandemic – services must be available when they are needed”.

Dr Liz Scowcroft, Samaritans’ head of research and evaluation, said the findings are stark but underlined that a rise in suicides is not inevitable.

“Suicide is preventable and these results demonstrate that it’s more important than ever that effective support is available for those who need it most,” she said. “As we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic, it’s a priority for us to reach those struggling to cope and encourage them to seek help before they reach crisis point.”

The study also involved the Universities of Nottingham, Stirling, and Leeds.

The study, ‘Mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic: longitudinal analyses of adults in the UK COVID-19 Mental Health & Wellbeing study’, is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.