The coronavirus pandemic has worsened mental health “substantially” – with women and young people hit the hardest, a study suggests.


The proportion of people reporting at least one mental health problem “much more than usual” has more than doubled, with 24 per cent of respondents aged 16 and over saying this in April, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) said.

This compares to one in 10 people who they predict would have reported the same, had the pandemic not occurred, based on pre-existing trends.

And it found the crisis has exacerbated “pre-existing inequalities” in mental health, with those with the poorest mental health experiencing the greatest decline.

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The IFS analysed data on 11,980 people aged 16 and over who were surveyed by researchers from the University of Essex as part of its Understanding Society study.

Participants were asked about their mental health over several years and again in late April, at the height of the UK outbreak.

The researchers then set out any expected changes based on pre-existing trends towards poorer mental health among the overall population.

The findings suggest an additional 7.2 million (14 per cent of) people aged 16 and over may be experiencing a mental health problem “much more than usual”.

More than a third (35 per cent) of female respondents aged 16-24 reported a severe problem, compared to an estimated 18 per cent had the outbreak not taken place.

Rainbows have become a symbol of hope throughout lockdown © Getty Images
Rainbows have become a symbol of hope throughout lockdown © Getty Images

The “sizeable deterioration” in mental health overall was driven by more problems being reported and more problems being experienced “much more than usual”, rather than mild deteriorations in existing problems, the IFS said.

Participants’ average, overall mental health score, calculated using the General Health Questionnaire measures where high scores indicate poor mental health, increased by 8.1 per cent in April compared to the average score the researchers predicted for this period without the outbreak taking place.

The IFS said the scale of this deterioration in mental health “is of a magnitude unlike anything we have seen in recent years”.

It is almost double the deterioration identified between the 2014-15 and 2017-18 waves of the study.

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Future data will be collected monthly over the next year, helping researchers assess the permanence or otherwise of the effects and the “extent and speed at which different groups are able to bounce back as the distancing restrictions unwind”.

Xiaowei Xu, a senior research economist at IFS and an author of the paper, said: “These impacts need to be weighed alongside economic and other health effects of policies as we move out of lockdown.

“It will be important to monitor changes in mental health and to make sure that appropriate support is given to those who are struggling.”


The IFS study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.