COVID-19 restrictions not linked to distress levels in England

COVID-19 restrictions not linked to distress levels in England
© iStock/Asurobson

A new study has found that English people continued to experience psychological distress beyond COVID-19 restrictions.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) and King’s College London collated the findings from the COVID-19 Rapid Survey of Adherence to Interventions and Responses (CORSAIR) to investigate whether there was a link between distress levels in England COVID-19 restrictions.

The researchers reviewed online surveys from over 41,000 participants over the age of 16 years between April 2020 and April 2022 and published the outcomes in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. 

Psychological distress and COVID-19 restrictions

The study revealed that psychological distress was consistently higher than normal throughout the pandemic and broadly mirrored the pattern of COVID-19 restrictions and case numbers. Despite this, notable exceptions indicated that other factors may have influenced psychological distress levels.

Between April 2020 and April 2022, around 50%-60% of women and 40%-50% of men reported psychological distress, as measured in the Patient Health Questionnaire 4*. Symptoms reported include uncontrollable worrying, little interest or pleasure in doing things and feeling depressed or anxious. This data indicated a clear increase compared to before the pandemic when 25%-30% of women and 20%-25% of men experienced distress.

Emotional wellbeing deteriorated throughout the pandemic and was lowest during the first and third lockdown. However, neither psychological distress nor emotional wellbeing was directly linked to COVID-19 restrictions.

To solidify this finding, the researchers found evidence that levels of distress increased following the re-opening of hospitality in July 2020. They also found that distress levels in women increased after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted on 19th July 2021 and after the removal of restrictions on 27th January 2022.

Wellbeing levels peaked in June 2020

The researchers found that wellbeing levels peaked in June 2020 whilst England remained under strict COVID-19 restrictions. Previous research suggested this may be because of the warm and sunny weather at the time.

Senior author Professor Henry Potts (UCL Institute of Health Informatics) said: “Rates of psychological distress in the English population has been high and stayed high during the pandemic with only minor fluctuations.

“Some politicians and commentators have concluded that mental health problems are a result of lockdowns. However, our research shows that there is not a simple relationship between the two.

“And, as levels of psychological distress continued to be high up until as recently as April 2022, we urge that more needs to be done to support the mental health and wellbeing of the population following a turbulent two years.”

Study limitations

The sample population used included a slightly higher percentage of women than men and respondents were more likely to be white than the general population. The researchers cannot be certain that the experiences of people who complete online surveys are representative of the general population. There was also no pre-pandemic data, and wellbeing was not measured during the second national lockdown.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here