Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health is a global concern. In the U.K., mental health disorders were the leading cause of disability in working age adults even before the pandemic, and the NHS Long Term Plan had prioritized mental health, committing to provide mental health services to an additional two million people. The arrival of COVID-19 brought social isolation, job insecurity, and loss of businesses, as well as bereavement. This has led to increases in risk factors predisposing people to mental illness and in mental illness itself.
IPPR Report 1 suggests meeting the NHS Long Term Plan goal to prevent 50,000 alcohol-related admissions to hospital in the next five years will prove difficult. With alcohol- and drug-related deaths already at an all-time high, the pandemic produced a sustained increase in the number of people drinking alcohol at hazardous levels.
The report cites several studies showing increased stress levels among families with children – particularly those from minority ethnic backgrounds and those with low incomes. As unemployment rises, furlough schemes taper, and mortgage holidays end, unhealthy stress levels will only worsen.
One study in particular by Pierce et al (2020), found that the mental health of U.K. adults has worsened by almost 10% on average. This was measured using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), a widely used screening instrument to detect common psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the study found that young adults and women (22.5% and 13.3% respectively) were particularly impacted, and that children’s (age 5-16) mental health has declined sharply, likely due to school closures. It also highlights the disparity in both socioeconomic and regional circumstances.
Mental Health Services
Despite the increase in mental health challenges, the report found that between March and August 2020, 235,000 fewer people were referred for psychological therapies compared to the same period in 2019. While the volume of referrals to psychological therapies has partially recovered in the second half of 2020, it remains below normal levels, and it is still too early to know the impact the second and third waves of COVID-19 have had on this recovery.
For those with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, services have been seriously impacted. These individuals die 10 to 20 years earlier than the average person, with most of this premature mortality caused by physical illness, notably cardiovascular disease. The NHS Long Term Plan had aimed to increase health checks for people with severe mental illness by 2023-2024, but IPPR data reveals that by September 2020, the NHS had fallen below a third of its target.
IPPR Report 1 forecasts that over 1.8 million new referrals to mental health services will occur in the next three years as a direct result of the pandemic. On top of that, while the impacts of the second and third waves on mental health remain unknown, it is safe to assume COVID-19 will contribute to ongoing mental health issues for some time to come.
Life Satisfaction and Suicide
Further helpful data comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS conducts an online Opinions and Lifestyle survey, asking questions about well-being, including anxiety issues and overall life satisfaction. Anxiety was estimated to be at its highest in March 2020 and remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. The percentage of adults reporting depressive symptoms doubled for the year after the start of lockdown, from roughly 10% to 20%. More than a year and a half into the pandemic, estimated life satisfaction remains lower that its average score in February 2020.
The ONS also released a report in September 2021 on the rate of suicide deaths in England and Wales during the first lockdown. The report estimated that, between April and July 2020, 1,603 suicides occurred in England and Wales – equivalent to an age-standardized mortality rate of 9.2 deaths per 100,000 people. Contrary to speculation at the time, this is significantly lower than rates for the same period in previous years: down 18% from the same period in 2019 and 12.7% below the average for the previous five years. These findings are consistent with other U.K. studies and comparable with research in other countries, including the United States, Germany, Japan, and Australia.