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Study reveals pandemic's worsening emotional impact on UK adults

Key indicators of distress among UK adults – including loneliness,  suicidality and not coping well with stress – are worse now than at the start of the pandemic, according to new research. 

Tine Van Bortel, Professor of Global Health from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) and the University of Cambridge, is co-leading a UK-wide study looking at the impact the pandemic has had on people’s mental health in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation, Swansea University, Strathclyde University and Queen’s University Belfast. 


Since the lockdown started in March 2020, the researchers have surveyed UK adults at regular intervals about their mental health and wellbeing. The findings suggest that, despite improvements in some areas over the summer, the longer-term trend is towards deepening distress.    

The latest wave of the research involved 4,436 adults and was carried out between 26th to 30th November – after the announcement of successful vaccine trials. It shows that since March, the extent of loneliness has risen, from 10% to 25%.   

Professor Van Bortel said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has eroded many of the things that normally protect our mental health – from social connectedness to financial security and hope for the future.  

“Prolonged stress and loneliness negatively impact mental health and also contribute significantly towards poor physical health. These issues will become more apparent over time and will cause a huge burden for individuals, communities, health services and economies.” 

The proportion who say they are “coping well with the stress of the pandemic” has fallen steadily too, from almost three quarters (73%) in April, to 62% in November.    

Reports of having had suicidal thoughts and feelings within the previous two weeks, as a result of the pandemic, are also up from 8% of those surveyed in April to 13% in November.   

“While the government has produced a policy paper for England on staying mentally well this winter, we need a more long-term strategy to address the mental health effects of the pandemic, as well as implementation of the devolved administrations’ Covid-19 mental health plans,” continued Professor Van Bortel. 

“Taking a proactive, long-term, preventative approach to poor mental health is the best way to avoid people reaching crisis point and developing longer-term health problems.   

“It is critical that the government takes a comprehensive and inclusive, whole-system wellbeing approach to pandemic recovery.”  

The study also shows that some indicators of people’s distress have plateaued or eased over the course of the pandemic. Feelings of hopelessness were reported by 18% of UK adults surveyed, in both March and November, however the figure dipped to 15% in August.  

The proportion of UK adults surveyed who said they felt anxious or worried over the previous two weeks, because of the pandemic, has fallen gradually, from 62% in March to 45% in November, while worry about financial matters has fallen, from 42% in March to 28% in November.   

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, Director for England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were very concerned that the longer it went on, the more serious the risks to our mental health would become.  

“Unfortunately, this latest data appears to support that fear. It is clear that for millions of people, distress is not going away and on some important measures, problems are getting worse.   

“There is no vaccine to protect our mental health against the consequences of the pandemic. Instead, we need to focus on prevention – including tackling the underlying causes of mental ill-health, such as rising unemployment, poverty and social isolation.  

"This is why we need a long-term COVID-mental health recovery plan for England now, and full implementation of devolved nations' mental health recovery plans."  

The Mental Health Foundation has published recommendations for prevention and recovery during and following the pandemic. It is advocating a Whole-Government Covid-19 Mental Health Response and Recovery Plan, to ensure the necessary broad approach to mental health during the COVID-19-crisis and in the recovery phase.

Posted on Friday 18th December 2020

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