New study reveals mental health impact of initial lockdown period

The first six weeks of the pandemic and lockdown had a major impact on the UK population’s mental health and wellbeing, according to new research.

Led by the University of Glasgow, the study, which is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 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, SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health), and the Mindstep Foundation, is the most detailed examination to date of the mental health and wellbeing of the UK adult population during the first six weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research, led by the University’s Professor Rory O’Connor, Chair in Health Psychology at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, found that suicidal thoughts increased over the first six weeks of the UK’s lockdown (one in ten or 9.8% 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.

Within this study, 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 March 31 and May 11. Participants have also been followed up throughout the pandemic, and further results will be published in the coming months.

Further analysis into 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 (14% reported suicidal thoughts by wave 3) and higher levels of depressive symptoms than those aged 30-59 years and over 60; with those aged 30-59 years reporting higher rates than those over 60.

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

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to those in higher socio-economic groups, as well as those with pre-existing mental health conditions compared to those without.

21% of the sample was above the cut-off for at least moderate levels of symptoms of anxiety at the start of lockdown; however, these symptoms decreased across the first six weeks.

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, SAMH, said: “This important research shows that mental health will continue to be a crucial issue in the coming months. We must invest 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 from this study are stark and leave us with no doubt that COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on the nation’s mental health. However, it is important to remember 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. As we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic, it is a priority for us to reach those struggling to cope and encourage them to seek help before they reach crisis point.

“Suicide prevention is everyone’s business, so we need to work together to ensure that no one has to face these things alone. It can be as simple as checking in with those around us who might be struggling and encouraging them to talk or reach out for support.”

Tracey Davies, of the Mindstep Foundation, said: “We are pleased and proud to support this very important research. Mindstep is focussed on funding research into the causes of suicide and raising awareness of mental health warning signs, so research such as this, during these unprecedented and challenging times, is more important than ever.”

The study also involved the University of Nottingham, University of Stirling, and the University of 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.