Pandemic one year on: landmark mental health study reveals mixed picture

Pandemic one year on: Landmark mental health study reveals mixed picture, as anxiety falls but loneliness rises.

Responses from UK adults:

  • Anxiety about the pandemic has fallen among UK adults, from 62 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 42 per cent in February 2021.
  • Loneliness has risen, from 10 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 26 per cent in February 2021.
  • Fewer UK adults feel they are coping well with the stress of the pandemic. In April 2020, 73 per cent said they were coping well and in February 2021, 64 per cent said this.
  • Feelings of hopelessness across the population showed little change, with 18 per cent of people surveyed saying they had felt hopeless about the pandemic over the previous fortnight, in both March 2020 and February 2021.
  • Eight per cent of UK adults surveyed in April 2020 said they had had thoughts and feelings about suicide in the previous two weeks. This rose to 13 per cent in February 2021.
  • Young adults (18-24 year olds), full-time students, people who are unemployed, single parents and those with long-term disabling health problems and pre-existing problems with their mental health continue to be significantly more likely to be feeling distressed, across a range of measures, compared with UK adults generally.

New results from the landmark Mental Health in the Pandemic study show that one year on, the crisis has had wide and deep emotional impacts on UK adults.

The research reveals some positive signs. Anxiety about the pandemic has become less common, falling from 62 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 42 per cent in February 2021.

However, the overall picture is mixed. Loneliness has become much more common, increasing from 10 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 26 per cent in February 2021. Feelings of loneliness have not returned to their pre-lockdown levels at any point over the past year, including when most restrictions were lifted over the summer.

Loneliness matters for mental health because connections with others help us cope with difficulties. Losing connections means less emotional support, at a time of global crisis that has challenged almost everyone.

The number of people who said they are coping well with the stress of the situation has fallen slowly and fairly steadily over the last year. In April 2020, during the first lockdown, 73 per cent of UK adults said they were coping well and in February 2021, 64 per cent said this. 

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, Director for England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “The Study has tracked the pandemic’s impacts on our mental health for a year now.

What we see is a complex picture – on some measures, UK adults are feeling better than in March 2020 but on others, we are feeling no better or worse.

“Fewer of us are feeling anxious about the pandemic but more of us now feel lonely and ground down by the stress of the past year.

“It is absolutely important to remember that the experience of the past year has not been shared by everyone. We have all been in the same storm, but we have not all been in the same boat. The Coronavirus vaccine brings hope. The warmer weather brings smiles. However, for many of us, the next few months – and even years – will remain tough, vulnerable and uncertain.

“We believe this study to be one of the first to have tracked people’s mental health systematically across a pandemic, using nationally representative samples. We hope that it will inform responses to future pandemics, as well as the current one, as it's not helpful to see Covid-19 as a one-in-a-generation event.”

The Study began shortly before the lockdown in March 2020 and has asked questions of the UK public at 10 intervals, generating around 36,000 responses.

It has been done in partnership between the Mental Health Foundation and the universities of Cambridge, Swansea, de Montfort Leicester, Strathclyde and Queen’s Belfast.

Its findings have been used by a range of public, government and international bodies to inform their responses to the pandemic, and shared with policymakers at the highest level, including at the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and the Governments of Scotland and Wales.

The Mental Health Foundation is to invest at least £1 million in programmes targeting some of the groups who have been hardest hit by the pandemic – including people of colour, single parents and those with long-term health conditions.

Dr Kousoulis added: “One of our key aims, when we launched the Study a year ago, was to identify what was happening across the UK population and whether some groups were particularly seriously affected. This was designed to help us as a charity - and policy-makers - to target support at some of the most vulnerable people.

“We can now see clearly that among the most seriously affected people are young adults, people who are unemployed and full-time students. In these groups, painful experiences including loneliness, hopelessness and feeling suicidal are much more common.

“This is especially troubling, at a time when unemployment is set to rise. Policymakers must target support at these more vulnerable groups, to help prevent them reaching crisis point.

“We also need to see co-ordinated action on mental health from across the whole of Government, with a formal requirement for it to consider the mental health impacts of all policies it develops. This has never been more important than it is now.”

The Study shows that suicidality has become more common over the year. In April 2020 when the Study first asked the question, 8 per cent of people said they had had thoughts or feelings about suicide within the previous two weeks. In February 2021, 13 per cent of people said this.

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. It is also important to remember that most people who have suicidal thoughts and feelings do not go on to attempt or complete suicide. Nevertheless, the Study clearly reveals that a considerable portion of the population has been living in hopeless circumstances for a whole year.

It continues to show that some groups of people are much more distressed than UK adults generally. These include 18-24 year-olds, full-time students, single parents and adults who are unemployed, as well as single parents, people with long-term disabling health conditions and mental health problems that pre-date the pandemic.

Among 18-24 year-olds, for instance, 48 per cent of those surveyed in February said they had felt lonely as a result of the pandemic over the previous two weeks. This is almost double the rate of loneliness among UK adults generally (26 per cent).

It is also sharply higher than the rate of loneliness among young adults (18-24) themselves in March 2020. At that point, 16 per cent of those surveyed said they had felt lonely as a result of the pandemic during the previous fortnight.

People who are unemployed also appear to be finding the pandemic especially hard and, on some measures, getting worse. In March 2020, they were as likely as UK adults generally to say they had felt hopeless about the pandemic over the previous fortnight (18 per cent among both groups). By February 2021, the extent of hopelessness among UK adults generally was unchanged but among the unemployed, it had risen to 28 per cent.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.

Total sample size in March 2020 was 2,126 UK adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17th - 18th March 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Total sample size in April 2020 was 2,221 UK adults aged 18+. Fieldwork was undertaken between 2nd - 3rd April 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Total sample size in February 2021 was 4,251 UK adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th - 26th February 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Notes to Editors

To arrange an interview with one of the experts working on the Study, 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.  

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’ guidelines on reporting suicide here. Samaritans are available 365 days a year. Calls are free on 116 123 and people can also email them at [email protected]