Nine-Month Study Reveals Pandemic’s Worsening Emotional Impacts 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 by the Mental Health Foundation and its university partners. 

The study has questioned UK adults at regular intervals since the lockdown started in March 2020. It suggests 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 per cent of UK adults surveyed to 25 per cent in November.  
 
The proportion who say they are “coping well with the stress of the pandemic” has fallen steadily, from almost three quarters (73 per cent) in April to 62 per cent in November.   
 
Moreover, reports of having had suicidal thoughts and feelings within the previous two weeks, as a result of the pandemic, are up from 8 per cent of those surveyed in April to 13 per cent in November.  
 
It is not yet clear whether the pandemic will affect suicide rates. We do know that suicide is potentially preventable, if we take action now, rather than waiting for the number of suicides to rise. It is also important to remember that most people who have suicidal thoughts and feelings do not go on to make suicide attempts or take their own lives.  
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 Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic long-term study by the Mental Health Foundation is in partnership with the universities of Cambridge, Swansea, Strathclyde, Queen’s Belfast and De Montfort. The study started in March 2020 and has repeatedly surveyed 4,000+ UK adults since then.  
 
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 per cent of UK adults surveyed, in both March and November; the figure dipped to 15 per cent in August. 
 
Worry about financial matters has fallen, from 42 per cent of UK adults in March to 28 per cent in November.  
 
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 per cent in March to 45 per cent in November.  
 
 
Professor Tine Van Bortel, from the University of Cambridge and De Montfort University Leicester, 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. 
 
“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. 
 
“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 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. 
 
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 4,436 UK adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 26th - 30th November 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). 
 
To arrange an interview with one of the experts working on our study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health, or for further information, please contact Rachel Baird: [email protected] or [email protected] or call 07749 159 029.   
 
The Mental Health Foundation is leading and sponsoring this 4-nation longitudinal study. It is using repeated cross-sectional surveys, via YouGov. Survey participants are different on each sampling occasion but taken from the same pool and always representative of the UK population.  
 
The survey covers approximately 20 topics, including the pandemic’s impact on mental health and the key drivers of risk. The lead academic partner is the University of Cambridge. The other academic partners are Swansea University, Strathclyde University, Queen’s University Belfast and De Montfort University Leicester. Ethical approval has been obtained from the Cambridge Psychology Research Ethics Committee.  
 
The study also uses focus groups to gather qualitative information. We produce regular briefings. Our data can be used to inform policy action. We welcome suggestions for briefing topics that would be interesting and important to inform action.  
 
All calculations about the numbers of people affected were done by the Mental Health Foundation.  
 
The Mental Health Foundation: Our vision is of good mental health for all. The Mental Health Foundation works to prevent mental health problems. We will drive change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and support communities, families and individuals to lead mentally healthy lives with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. The Foundation is the home of Mental Health Awareness Week.   It is also producing a growing library of information about looking after our mental health during the pandemic.  
 
Read the Samaritans’ media guidelines for reporting suicide to find out how to cover suicide and self-harm safely.