New research from UCL has found that levels of depression and anxiety rose sharply throughout December in the UK. These findings come from the Covid-19 Social Study which has been led by UCL researchers.
These new findings are based on a survey of 31,151 people, which took place during the first week of January 2022 and is part of the ongoing UCL Covid-19 Social Study. Since March 2020, this longitudinal study has regularly surveyed over 70,000 people, addressing people’s experiences with mental health and their response to different elements of the pandemic and lockdowns. This study is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, UKRI and Wellcome.
What might the possible reasons be for this increase?
This increase in depression and anxiety also happened to coincide with public confidence in the government’s handling of Covid-19 having taken a sharp decline (in England and Wales). UCL report that in England, the lack of confidence was the closest it’s been to its lowest point back in October 2020.
The January 2022 survey also found that, in comparison to their survey conducted in the last week of November, reported life satisfaction and happiness had reached their lowest levels since March 2021 during December and the Christmas period.
Lead author of the new findings, Dr Daisy Fancourt from the Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care at UCL 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 anxiety and depression 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.”
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The survey found that the source of the increased anxiety was likely due to the increased worry and concern over catching Covid-19, with results from the survey saying:
- '43% of respondents saying 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% reporting that the possibility of developing Covid-19 was a major concern'
After Christmas 2020 being so filled with disappointment and many spending it alone, the stress and worry felt in the wake of the Omicron variant that we would face the same disappointment no doubt added to this growing anxiety.
The survey also found that 73% of respondents were becoming increasingly concerned that their non-Covid-19 related NHS treatment would be cancelled, as well as 64% expressing a major worry that hospitals would become overwhelmed again. These fears were most frequent among adults aged 30 and over.
Meanwhile, changes in behaviour to ensure people stayed clear of Covid-19 before Christmas as well as compliance with existing guidelines increased, these included: socially distancing, wearing masks, staying home more, taking lateral flow tests regularly, meeting with fewer people, shopping online, avoiding large gatherings and making fewer plans. Again with the greatest increase in behaviour changes seen in those aged 30 to 60+.
Another worrying finding from this survey was the fact that only one in four respondents (43%) expressed ‘fully’ understanding the rules and restrictions in place at that time, while one in 10 (10%) admitted to not understanding 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.”