The prevalence of diagnosed depression leapt eightfold, and cases of anxiety increased more than sixfold, following the first lockdown

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Depression and anxiety levels in the UK ‘jumped markedly’ as a consequence of restrictions and isolation during the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, according to researchers from the University of Bath.

Psychologists from the university’s Addiction and Mental Health Group conducted a detailed systematic review of 14 studies involving more than 46,000 participants. The research, published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, revealed that the prevalence of diagnosed depression leapt eightfold, from a pre-pandemic level of around 4% of the population to 32% (95% confidence interval [CI] 29.00–35.00) following the first lockdown, which began 2 years ago on 23 March 2020.

Similarly, diagnosed cases of anxiety, which prior to the pandemic affected around 5% of the population, increased more than sixfold to 31% (95% CI 26.00–35.00).

Global mental health emergency

These rates broadly accord with studies from other countries, the authors found. ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global state of emergency concerning not only physical health but also mental health’, they said. It has ‘had detrimental effects on the mental health of individuals worldwide.’

Lead researcher, Dr Gemma Taylor PhD, Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, said: ‘We all know the dramatic toll lockdown had on our lives and, 2 years, on it’s a moment to pause and reflect on some of the long-standing effects this period has had our mental health.

‘Our study shows a sharp rise in depression and anxiety as a result of lockdown. These are challenges which cannot be undone overnight. Tackling them will require significantly greater resources to ensure those who need it can access psychological support. Psychological support is not cheap, and services have notoriously been underfunded.

‘Whilst there is good news for people’s mental health in regard to vaccination rates and the return to some degree of normality in the UK, we need to be mindful of these possible lasting mental health effects that lockdown had on many of us.’

Future research should be longitudinal, to explore the change in the prevalence of anxiety and depression across subsequent lockdowns, the team recommended.

‘While it is plausible that the population has become habituated to the restrictions, it is also plausible that mental health has deteriorated over time.’

They called for greater availability of evidence-based psychological interventions, like cognitive behavioural therapy, and said: ‘It is vital that policymakers and mental health services double their efforts to monitor mental health, and provide interventions to support those in need.’

One in three adults reported mental health deterioration

The team’s findings agree with those of a Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) survey, also published this week, in which one in three UK adults reported a deterioration in their mental health over the past 2 years. Young people were more affected than older people—42% of those aged less than 35 years said that their mental health had deteriorated, compared with 10% of those aged 65 years and older.

The nationwide poll of 2247 people also showed that the most vulnerable people were hit hardest. The proportion of those saying that their mental health had deteriorated compared with 2 years ago was:

  • four in five (81%) among those with pre-existing mental health problems
  • more than half (52%) of adults with a disability
  • two in five (41%) of those with a pre-existing physical health condition.

In a statement, the RCPsych said: ‘More needs to be done to prevent mental illness. The college is launching the Public Mental Health Implementation Centre to improve awareness and adoption of evidence-based programmes to prevent mental illness and improve resilience and wellbeing following the pandemic.’ The centre will publish and provide advice to NHS commissioners, trusts, and others.

Dr Trudi Seneviratne, Registrar at the college, said: ‘The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on the nation’s mental health, with one in three people saying their mental health deteriorated over the past 2 years. There are proven strategies for preventing mental illness but a lack of funding and knowledge have stymied progress.

‘The Public Mental Health Implementation Centre will boost awareness and adoption of evidence-based programmes that prevent mental illness. We must learn lessons for the future and the next pandemic. Investing in evidence-based prevention and protection programmes makes sense morally, medically, and economically. It saves money and, most importantly, saves lives.’

Government must wake up to mental health crisis

Earlier this month, the RCPsych also reported ‘an unprecedented demand for specialist mental healthcare’ during 2021, with a record 4.3 million referrals to mental health services as the pandemic continued to take a toll on people’s mental health. Analysis of NHS Digital data showed that there were 3.3 million referrals to adult services and 1.025 million referrals of people aged less than 18 years in England between January and December 2021.

By the time the Omicron variant arrived in December, a record 1 million people were receiving specialist treatment for mental health conditions, including addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, with 1.4 million people still waiting for treatment.

Dr Adrian James, President of the RCPsych, said: ‘As the pressure on services continues to ratchet up, the silence from Government continues to be of grave concern for the college, the wider mental health workforce and, most importantly, our patients.

‘The warning of the long tail of mental ill health caused by the pandemic has not been heeded. Many thousands of people will be left waiting far too long for the treatment they need unless the Government wakes up to the crisis that is engulfing the country.’

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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