A new study by the University College London (UCL) found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety rose sharply over December in the UK.
The study uncovered that symptoms of depression and anxiety increased, especially amongst young adults during December 2021 in the UK, reaching similar levels during the lockdown at the start of 2021.
The research also found that confidence in the government’s handling of Covid-19 fell in England and Wales over the same period (between the end of November and the start of January) but remained steady in Scotland. In England, the level of confidence was close to the lowest level recorded during the pandemic back in October 2020.
Depression and anxiety during a pandemic
Depression and anxiety are common mental health conditions with NHS Digital stating that 366, 560 new referrals to mental health services were received, and 2.02 million care contacts were attended, during September 2021.
The new findings are based on a survey of 31,151 people taken in the first week of January 2022 as part of the ongoing Covid-19 Social Study, which has successfully surveyed more than 70,000 respondents since March 2020 to track people’s experiences of the pandemic. The study is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, UKRI and Wellcome.
The new study recorded a drop in levels of life satisfaction and happiness during this period when compared to the previous survey, which took place the week of 22-28 November 2021. They also found that the survey respondents life satisfaction and happiness reached the lowest levels since March 2021.
Lead author Dr Daisy Fancourt (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care) said: “The findings reported here highlight the ongoing adverse effects of the pandemic on mental health. Even though there were many fewer restrictions this Christmas compared with Christmas 2020, levels of depression and anxiety were on a par with the same time last year. Our findings suggest that it is not just the presence of social restrictions that affect mental health but also concerns and stressors relating to high levels of the virus and a high risk of infection.
“The decrease in confidence in government to handle the pandemic likely contributed to the stresses many people faced over this period.”
People’s concerns about Covid-19 also increased sharply over the Christmas period with:
- 43% of respondents said catching Covid-19 was a major concern,
- 46% worried about becoming seriously ill from Covid-19,
- 58% concerned about family or friends catching Covid-19,
- 52% reported that the possibility of developing long Covid was a major concern.
Three in four (73%) people reported being concerned about non-Covid-19 NHS treatment being cancelled, postponed, or otherwise adversely affected over the next three months. 64%of respondents also had a major worry about hospitals being overwhelmed. These fears were greatest amongst adults over the age of 30 compared to adults aged 18-29.
Meanwhile, 86% of respondents reported that their experiences and behaviours had been different over the Christmas period compared to typical Christmases. The respondents recorded that they stayed at home more, changed travel plans, met with fewer people, shopped online rather than in-store, avoided large gatherings, and made fewer plans. Younger adults (aged 18-29) reported the fewest differences to usual compared to older adults.
Compliance with guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 slightly increased over the Christmas period, indicating that people tightened up their behaviours. This pattern was seen clearly in 30- to 59-year-olds and 60+-year-olds. However, only four in 10 (43%) people said they currently understood the rules fully or near fully, and one in 10 (10%) said they did not understand them at all.
Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “In addition to the increase in depression and anxiety over the Christmas period, it is worrying that the majority of people report not fully understanding the current ‘rules’ in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This demonstrates there is an important communication challenge to be addressed by the government so that people understand these rules – which have been subject to changes in recent weeks – and can comply with them.”
Furthermore, older adults were more likely over the Christmas period to maintain a safe distance when meeting (30% always for those aged 60+ vs 9% of those aged 18-29) as well as washing their hands, wearing face masks, increasing ventilation in indoor spaces and meeting outdoors, but adults under the age of 60 were more likely to take lateral flow tests and ask others to take them, the survey found.