COVID-19 and mental health

by Lucy Clutton and Elizabeth Bradley
Health

A new syndemic?

Syndemic, countable noun. The aggregation of two or more concurrent epidemics in a population with biological interactions, which exacerbate the prognosis and burden of disease.

In recent years public awareness of mental health issues has grown dramatically. This year, lockdowns have brought with them feelings of isolation and mounting anxiety – especially for working mothers of young children – causing even more people to pay attention to their own mental health. This is how it unfolded.

March – lockdown begins

At the end of March, in the week following the first lockdown announcement, we found that in Britain 21% of people were concerned about isolation and 20% were concerned about mental illnesses, with concern higher among women, at 28%.1 However, some optimism remained, as 24% had found different forms of entertainment to protect their mental wellbeing.

May

Towards the end of May, two months into lockdown and with restrictions beginning to ease slightly, we found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of people living in the UK believed their sleep had been worse since the original lockdown announcement.2 While the proportion of those feeling anxious in the previous two weeks was just over half 3 (a high proportion, but actually down from the pre-lockdown levels of 62%).4

Turning the spotlight on those aged 50-70, we found that one-third felt that their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic. This figure jumped to more than half among those who experienced deterioration in their physical health or were without work.5

In retrospect, the 20% of adults who were concerned about mental illness following the first lockdown announcement seems small compared to the proportion who have actually been affected.

Of those aged 50-70, we found that one-third felt that their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic

Masked woman stares out high rise building window
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Threat triggering concern and feelings of loneliness
March 2020

21% are concerned about isolation, and 20% worried about mental illnesses 1

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National lockdown announced on 23 March

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Reality hitting and impact being noticed
May 2020

63% say their sleep has been worse since lockdown was announced 2

One-third (36%) 50-70 year olds had seen their mental health deteriorate during the pandemic 5

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Lockdown begins to ease from mid-May

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Concerns stretching beyond the current situation
July 2020

39% say that the pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on their mental health over the next year

More women (55%) than men (44%) are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day 6

August/September 2020

39% of parents report their child’s mental welfare has worsened since lockdown began 9

Half of parents (51%) are concerned about their child’s mental welfare as they go to school 9

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Anticipation and fear around what's to come
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Social gatherings of more than six people become illegal & 10pm curfew introduced from mid-September

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Tiered local lockdown announced mid-October

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Increased restrictions and second lockdown in England

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health is likely to have a knock-on effect in the months to come

July

Towards the end of July, we found that the UK population was struggling to remain buoyant. This was particularly the case among women, where more than half said they found it harder to stay positive day-to-day, compared with 44% of men. This gap widened with working parents, as 55% of working mums compared to 35% of working dads reported experiencing this struggle.6 And even though those who reported feeling anxious had been steadily decreasing since March, that figure was still half (49%) of UK adults.7

All this data suggests that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health is likely to have a knock-on effect in the months to come. Indeed, two in five (39%) Britons already say that the pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on their personal mental health over the next year.8

man with head in hand

August/September

As summer drew to a close, 51% of parents were concerned about their child’s mental health and wellbeing as they either returned to school or went for the first time, with 39% reporting their child’s mental health had already worsened since lockdown began.9

November/December

As local restrictions failed to stop the climbing infection rate, a second phase of national lockdown has been introduced. The challenge facing us now, with the end of the pandemic in sight, is how we protect funding for mental health when a huge NHS back log of physical illnesses has emerged, and when the economic scars of the pandemic are only just beginning to crystallise.