2020 is a year that many are excited to see. It was definitely a tough time with the lockdowns creating huge challenges for our daily work and family life. But have the stresses and tensions associated with lockdown affected the mental health of the UK population as a whole? Tarani Chandola and colleagues use COVID19 data collected specifically for the investigation.
On March 23, the UK found itself in its first lockdown, a direct result of the pandemic’s soaring infection and death rates. The new normal for many has been working from home while trying to homeschool kids. The weekly shop included queues, masks and social distancing. Getting a doctor or dentist appointment or scheduled medical treatment has taken on a whole new dimension. Trips to pubs, the cinema and the theater were things that people no longer looked forward to, and the search for elderly relatives and friends became more important and equally challenging.
Gradually over the summer months, many of these restrictions were eased and the majority of children returned to school. Businesses including bars, gyms and hairdressers have been able to reopen albeit with strict social distancing and hygiene measures.
The severity of the limitations combined with the direct effects of the disease itself has created what can only be described as a perfect storm of potentially mounting stressors that have the potential to negatively impact the mental health of people everywhere. Most of us will feel the fear of contracting the disease, and many will feel additional fears for already vulnerable family and friends. The realities of working at home have brought their own challenges while others moving out or losing their jobs cause more anxiety.
Although there were widespread reports of a deterioration in mental health and wellbeing through the first UK lockdown, there were also some reports that this abated somewhat during April and May despite not returning to pre-pandemic levels.
In our research, which used data from the Understanding Society including the specially collected COVID-19 Study, we were able to look over a slightly longer time period at the experiences of between 13,000 and 17,000 people in the UK. These were people who had been surveying for many years, so there was quite a bit of background information available as background to our research.
We wanted to know if more people were reporting mental health problems and to what extent the prevalence of the problems was directly related to the stresses and strains of lockdown and the pandemic specifically. We also wanted to see if the initial “shock” of the events in April had abated in the subsequent months as people began to adjust and “get used to” their new circumstances.
Between April and July, study participants were asked a series of questions directly related to the disease itself including whether they had contracted it, been tested for it or experienced symptoms. There were also questions about any other health treatment, their families, work and money-related concerns such as struggling to pay the bills.
Every month people are asked about their work status so we can see that for example Who has been working, is self-employed, has reduced hours, is laid off or has been made redundant. They were also asked about the hours they spent on childcare and homeschooling or whether they felt lonely.
A common mental disorder
Before the lockdown, just under 25 per cent of people in the UK had suffered from mental health problems, and this rose to just over 37 per cent in April, more than a third of the population. There was a gradual decline in cases through July (just under 26 per cent) which saw things almost return to pre-lockdown levels.
percentage of new cases of mental health problems among participants in April was twice as high (about 28 percent) than in the previous 12 months.
And rates of recovery from a mental health issue dropped from the pre-lockdown months through April to June, but picked up again in July, by which time social restrictions had largely eased, our research shows, potential stresses around COVID itself, and juggling work and family Health, business and financial responsibilities and concerns are reduced for most people.
The number of people reporting having some sort of limiting health condition and having to cancel or postpone medical treatment halved from April to July. During the same period, the number of self-employed workers who said their business was damaged also fell from 3.6 percent to 0.6 percent. The number of employees who reported being unemployed or working reduced hours fell by more than half and there was only a slight increase in the proportion of people describing themselves as “economically inactive”.
Reporting rates of ‘feeling lonely often’ fell from 8.8 to 6.7 percent, and fewer people reported having to spend more than 16 hours a week on childcare or homeschooling although there was a slight increase in the proportion of people who They spend from 1 to 15 hours on these tasks.
For some people, bill paying problems remained an issue throughout the period, Although the percentage of people who said they found things very difficult financially or who said the future looked bleaker financially decreased somewhat from April onwards.
What stressors affected people the most?
The strongest link between lockdown-related stress was loneliness. People in the survey who reported “often feeling lonely” were 11 to 16 times more likely to report mental health problems from April to July than those who never felt lonely. Another important stressor was having COVID-19 symptoms and always working from home.
Self-employed people whose businesses were negatively affected by COVID-19 were more likely to develop a mental health problem than their peers whose businesses were not affected. By July, employees who became unemployed, were laid off or had their hours reduced were more likely to develop a problem than those who were not affected.
Adults who did 16 or more hours per week in childcare or homeschooling were 1.4 times more likely to develop a problem than those without children or who spent no time in childcare.
Adults who were finding it very difficult financially were 2.4 times more likely to develop a mental health problem than those who lived comfortably. Similarly, adults who expected their future financial situations to be worse than now were 1.6 times more likely.
Our findings from looking at this group of people over the period from April to July are consistent with other surveys conducted by the Office for National Statistics and the UCL COVID-19 Study of 90,000 adults. We add to that picture by looking closely at the stressful conditions most likely to lead to poor mental health during a pandemic of this kind.
We conclude that although many lockdown conditions were lifted by July and levels of many psychosocial stressors decreased, these stressors continued to worsen mental health among lonely people who became unemployed or redundant. Have financial problems or have childcare or homeschooling duties.
With unemployment and oversupply in the labor market increasing, an inevitable consequence of recent events, it will be important to continue to monitor the mental health consequences of unemployment. It is also interesting to note that furloughed employees had the same levels of mental health problems as employees whose hours were not affected. This suggests that government measures to protect jobs also had positive mental health benefits for those employees who were able to keep their jobs albeit on a ‘leave’ state.
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and lockdown-related stress among adults in the United Kingdom Research by Tarani Chandola, Kara Booker, Meena Kumari, and Michaela Benzivale and published in Psychiatry