Coronavirus: The divergence of mental health experiences during the pandemic

Introduction 

The Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic study provides unique insights into the mental health effects of the pandemic since mid-March, with five waves of data collected so far across the UK specifically focussed on mental health and wellbeing. We want to use good quality evidence to influence the actions that we need to take as a country to prevent a mental health crisis in the years to come. 

While we have all been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, the evidence from the Foundation’s Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic (‘our’) study shows a divergence in people’s experience depending on their social and/or economic context in society. As has been said: we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. 

With permission from BarbaraKelley.com
With permission from BarbaraKelley.com 

Even as the measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 change, with reduced restrictions for most and sustained isolation for a minority, with some having been affected directly by the virus and many less so, some returning to normal work life and many others experiencing changed employment status, differences in the mental health impact will persist and likely increase.  

Overall, the levels of distress are receding, and most people are feeling able to cope. As of the third week of June, 49% of the population had felt anxious or worried in the past two weeks due to the pandemic, down from 62% in mid-March. But there are still millions of people across the UK who are struggling with the stress of the pandemic. Therefore, it is important to look at the effects over time and watch for groups that might need more help as their social circumstances change during each phase of the recovery. 

Differences in people’s response to the pandemic are not randomly distributed across the UK – they arise from people’s social and economic position in society. Groups affected by socioeconomic inequalities have been more likely to experience anxiety, panic, hopelessness, loneliness, and to report not coping well with the stress of the pandemic. Most worryingly, as of the end of June, one in ten people in the UK reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings in the past two weeks, and in certain disadvantaged groups there are even higher proportions of people with suicidal thoughts and feelings. These inequalities in impact have important implications for planning public services and support. 

The divergence in the mental health effects of COVID-19 is of serious concern. It points to the need for a response and recovery plan that is multifaceted and addresses not just provision of mental health services, but also the social determinants of mental health and a reduction in socioeconomic inequalities, in order to minimise the extent of mental health problems during and after the crisis.   

This briefing reports findings from the Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic study as of the fifth wave of data collection carried out between 18th and 22nd June. The study is led by the Mental Health Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, Swansea University, the University of Strathclyde and Queen’s University Belfast. Since mid-March 2020, the project has undertaken regular, repeated surveys of more than 4,000 adults who are representative of people aged 18+ and living in the UK. The surveys are conducted online by YouGov. More detailed information on the coronavirus study is available here.

The boats people were in before the pandemic 

Many people entered the pandemic from positions of disadvantage. Certain population groups in our society already had a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health and wellbeing than people from more advantaged positions. This widely evidenced social gradient in mental health means that already, before the pandemic, those at the lower end of the economic ladder were more likely to be experiencing a mental health problem. However, the picture is complex. Economic status is one among a variety of factors that explain why some people are more likely to develop a mental health problem. Experiencing prejudice, discrimination and isolation due to other identities based on gender, ethnicity, residency status, sexual orientation or disability can also give rise to mental distress. Many people will be subject to a number of different inequalities during the course of their lives. The constellation of social identities, economic position and experiences of adversity will be unique for each person, but recognising patterns of intersecting inequalities across the population can help shape the types of mental health supports that should be in place for different groups in society.