Restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the UK have brought stress, anxiety and depression well above normal levels and could be repeated in the coming months if widespread blockages are reset, the researchers say.
A major study on the mental health impact of the pandemic found that in the early stages of the blockade, 57 percent of those who took part reported anxiety symptoms, with 64 percent reporting common signs of depression.
While mental health problems have improved with loosening of restrictions, scientists warn they could worsen again as infections increase, and more aggressive nationwide lockdowns are being considered during the fall and winter.
“This is far above the levels normally seen in the UK,” said Kavita Vedhara, professor of health psychology who led the study at the University of Nottingham. Based on the thresholds that qualify people for counseling from the NHS, 26% of the volunteers had moderate to severe anxiety and 31.6% had moderate to severe depression.
The study conducted with King’s College London questioned more than 3,000 UK adults about their mental health as restrictions on staying at home were introduced earlier this year. The researchers specifically looked at which groups were most affected by the blockade and which problems they found most difficult.
Women, young people and people in high-risk categories for Covid-19 were the most affected, the researchers found, although different factors likely drove mental health difficulties in each group. While fear of contracting the virus was likely key for those with underlying health conditions, young people and women may have experienced more distress due to job insecurity, loneliness and domestic violence.
As part of the study, the researchers collected hair samples from the participants to measure the stress hormone cortisol. The hormone plays a role in how emotional well-being affects physical health. Sample testing is expected to reveal whether the pandemic and the social restrictions imposed in response have altered cortisol levels and whether this changes the severity of Covid-19 infections.
In a separate study, yet to be published, Michael Daly of Maynooth University in Ireland studied the mental health of 14,000 people in UK households during the lockdown. The results confirmed that women and young people experienced the greatest increases in mental health difficulties, although they also enjoyed the fastest recovery.
“Essentially we’re seeing that recovery from mental health difficulties is faster in young people, women and even higher education groups, which were the three groups that showed the sharpest increases,” Daly said.
Vedhara, whose report was published on BMJ Open, said worrying about contracting Covid-19, feeling lonely, and not thinking positively were all strongly associated with people’s anxiety and depression.
To prepare for the coming months, he said new policies are needed to help people feel less worried about contracting the virus. Specifically, he said the UK needs to suppress the virus at low levels, have an effective system to track the contacts of those who test positive, and have sufficient testing capacity so that people can go about their daily lives without fear of being infected.
“If there is another block, we need to be prepared for a potential increase in mental health difficulties,” he added.
Vedhara advised people to stay in touch as socially as possible, to help avoid loneliness and make sure they found time to have fun: “Take time each day to do at least one thing that makes you feel good and laughs out loud. voice if possible, and reach out to friends, family or seek professional help as soon as you feel things are becoming unmanageable, “she said.