New research has demonstrated that the pandemic has led to a significant increase in the number of mental health issues affecting people in the United Kingdom.
Mental health issues significantly increased in the U.K. during lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has suggested.
Furthermore, the study identifies some of the mediating factors that affected people’s ability to cope with the pandemic. It also highlights the particular effect that the pandemic had on the people whom the U.K. government identified as vulnerable.
The research, which appears in the journal American Psychologist, could help inform future mental health strategies for dealing with the psychological consequences of the pandemic.
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Mental health during lockdown
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on people’s physical health. Across the world, hundreds of thousands of people have died, and many people have experienced persistent symptoms long after leaving the hospital.
However, as well as causing major physical health issues, the pandemic has also been taking a toll on people’s mental health.
Earlier this year, researchers looking at the effects of past quarantines on mental health also sought feedback from the general population and people with preexisting mental health issues on their experiences during the current pandemic. The team concluded that a significant negative effect is an expected consequence of the various lockdowns that governments have implemented around the world.
Further research from China found that 25% of people experienced mental distress during the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak and that these levels continued as the disease spread over the coming months.
A global pandemic is clearly a distressing event. People react to distressing events in different ways, with some reactions having a more detrimental effect than others on a person’s quality of life.
In the present study, the authors wanted to identify the general level of psychological distress that people experienced during the pandemic and the resulting lockdown in the U.K., as well as the factors that meant that some people experienced more distress than others.
The authors also looked specifically at people whom the U.K. government classed as vulnerable to COVID-19. This group included people with underlying health conditions, such as chronic respiratory disease, those aged 70 years or over, individuals with a weakened immune system, and pregnant women.
According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Hannah Rettie from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global uncertainty, which has had a direct, detrimental effect on so many people across the U.K. and around the world. People have been unsure when they would see relatives again, job security has been rocked, there is an increased threat to many people’s health, and government guidance is continuously changing, leading to much uncertainty and anxiety.”
“What our research focused in on is how some individuals have struggled to tolerate and adapt to these uncertainties — much more so than in normal times,” continues Dr. Rettie.
“These results have important implications as we move to help people psychologically distressed by these challenging times in the weeks, months, and years ahead.”
More than 800 participants
To conduct their study, the authors recruited 842 people via social media and other online channels. These individuals answered questions during a 10-day period in April, after the U.K. had entered a national lockdown.
80% of the respondents were female, and the average age was 38 years. Of the respondents, 22% reported a preexisting mental health condition — primarily anxiety, depression, or mixed anxiety and depression.
After analyzing the data, the authors found that almost 25% of the respondents experienced significantly worse anxiety and depression during lockdown.
In total, 37.5% of the respondents met clinical metrics for generalized anxiety, depression, or health anxiety during the survey period.
Health anxiety — being fearful of developing a serious disease, despite reassurances from medical professionals — was significant enough to be clinically recognized in almost 15% of the respondents.
The health anxiety of those in vulnerable groups was about twice that of people in the general population. People in vulnerable groups also experienced more depression and generalized anxiety.
The authors found that key predictors for worse mental health were a person’s “intolerance of uncertainty” and how they coped with this intolerance.
Coping strategies that experts consider unhelpful, such as denial, self-blame, and substance use, tended to have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. This was the case whether the person was part of a vulnerable group or not.
As a consequence of their findings, the authors suggest focusing psychological resources on helping individuals learn how to use coping strategies that tend to promote positive mental health.
They also suggest that policymakers ensure that vulnerable groups receive adequate mental health services, as they experience higher levels of distress and are also likely to have been in isolation for the longest.
Anxiety is an understandable response to the current pandemic. However, if anxiety becomes severe, it can have a significant adverse effect on a person’s day-to-day life.
As the research lead Dr. Jo Daniels, also of the Department of Psychology at Bath, notes: “While this research offers important insights into how common distress was during ‘lockdown,’ it is important to stress that anxiety is a normal response to an abnormal situation, such as a pandemic. It can be helpful to mobilize precautionary behaviors, such as hand washing and social distancing.”
“Yet for many,” continues Dr. Daniels, “as reflected in our findings, anxiety is reaching distressing levels and may continue despite easing of restrictions — it is essential we create service provision to meet this need, which is likely to be ongoing, particularly with current expectations of a second wave. Further longitudinal research is needed to establish how this may change over time.”
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