It was initially thought that during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues would wash through the general population like a “tsunami” and that we were probably facing the biggest mental health crisis since WWII. So much so that a team of experts from the Universities of Sheffield, Ulster, Liverpool, UCL and Bedford College was set up to monitor mental health in the UK.
The initial findings point towards the idea of a wave of mental health issues affecting the whole of the UK population is misleading.
To look at how the pandemic affected the wellbeing of the general population, the researchers used Qualtrics online surveying company and in March 2020 surveyed 2,025 adults who were representative of the UK population regarding economic and demographic data. People were asked about their family relationships and attitudes towards social distancing and vaccines. Contact has been maintained with the trial group ever since through online questionnaires, telephone interviews and psychometric tests.
Although data collection is still ongoing and a full picture will take years to emerge, it is possible to see some patterns. According to the data, during the first weeks of lockdown there was a spike in the rates of depression, anxiety and stress. With the worst hit being people who have suffered from mental illness before, people who are poor, the young and those who have small children at home.
But in follow ups and continued data collection a different picture began to emerge and it now appears that rates of “above threshold” levels of psychiatric symptoms have actually reduced. This finding has been replicated by other longitudinal studies.
This picture of adaptation and resilience should not be surprising because we know from previous research that individual, interpersonal traumas (for example, sexual assaults) are far more mentally damaging than collective traumas such as natural disasters. This is at least in part because strong social bonds protect people against stress and, during a crisis, people often come together to help each other, creating a sense of belonging and a shared identity with neighbours.
With further data analysis it emerged that there were a lot of individual differences in how people cope with lockdown during the pandemic with 56% of the population showing no signs of depression or anxiety at any time and 6.5% have been unwell throughout the pandemic. 28% of the population have deteriorated over time and an 8.5% of the population have actually felt in better mental health than before the pandemic. This is a very different picture to a tsunami of mental health issues sweeping the country, with about one quarter of the population doing badly, so according to the researchers, it could be a case of “different slopes for different folks”.
To further understand these individual differences in resilience to the pandemic, it was found that people with a previous history of mental illness, those who are lonely, those who are intolerant to uncertainty, those who suffer from death anxiety and people who felt they have little control over their lives tend to fare worse.
In a separate study of the Spanish population carried out in Madrid, the team also found that people who started out with positive beliefs about the world (they thought that the world was fundamentally a good place) often experienced “post-traumatic growth”; they used the pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate their lives and change for the better. So it would appear that mental health during the pandemic is not just conditioned on where people are, but also how things pan out and how this affects people in different ways. People who have managed to keep their jobs may now be working from home which may be beneficial in saving money and saving time on commuting and parents of older children claim to enjoy having their children around, while parents of younger children find the balance of working from home while attending to the needs of a toddler more stressful.
The largest predictor of mental instability was linked to economic uncertainty as a result of losing a job due to the pandemic and surprisingly, exposure to the virus seemed to have little effect on mental health. This lead to the conclusion that the best way governments can protect their populations is by protecting them from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The study was lead by Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield and the COVID-19 Psychological Research Consortium includes Todd Hartman, Jilly Gibson-Miller, Liat Levita, Anton Martinez, Thomas Stocks and Sarah Butter (University of Sheffield); Mark Shevlin, Jamie Murphy, Orla McBride (Ulster University); Kate Bennett (Liverpool University); Liam Mason (UCL) and Ryan McKay (Royal Holloway and Bedford College). The project website is: www.sheffield.ac.uk/psychology-consortium-covid19
Chris Neill is a British psychologist who has lived and worked in Spain for over 22 years. If you feel you may be suffering from depression or anxiety and would like to speak to a professional you can contact him at https://counsellingtherapistmadrid.com/
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