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New research suggests that UK adults who have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic are more likely to have pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, be from an ethnic minority group, and live in the nation’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

By Mr Shamim Quadir(Senior Communications Officer), Published

One in nine adults had consistently very poor or deteriorating mental health during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research.

Those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods along with ethnic minority groups were the most affected say the team based at The University of Manchester, City, University of London, King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, and Swansea University.

However, two thirds of adults were in groups whose mental health was largely unaffected by the pandemic finds the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

The team analysed monthly surveys between April and October 2020 on 19,763 adults to identify typical patterns of change in mental health, revealing five distinct groups.

The unaffected groups were more likely to be older, white, and from the least deprived areas, with men being especially likely to have consistently very good mental health. According to the research:

  • 12% of the sample were in a group that experienced initial declines in their mental health at the beginning of the pandemic then recovered over the summer. Women and parents of school-aged children were particularly likely to be in this group, experiencing significant improvements in mental health around the time schools’ reopened.
  • 7% of the sample experienced a sustained decline in their mental health.
  • 4% of the sample had mental health that was consistently very poor throughout.

The groups experiencing a sustained decline or consistently very poor mental health were more likely to have had pre-existing mental or physical conditions. They were also more likely to be Asian, Black or mixed ethnicities, and live in the most deprived areas.

The researchers also found that infection with COVID-19, local lockdown, and financial difficulties all predicted a subsequent deterioration in mental health.

The research team analysed the UK Household Longitudinal Study from the University of Essex and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Sally McManus, second author of the study, and Health Lecturer at the Violence and Society Centre, City, University of London said:

Our analyses show how mental health inequalities are changing during the pandemic. One month into lockdown, being younger, female, and having children predicted the largest increases in mental distress. These groups, however, experienced recovery when schools reopened. As the pandemic progressed other types of inequalities have steadily widened. Those struggling financially or from minority ethnic groups were especially likely to experience month-on-month deterioration in their mental health and have become groups of concern.

Dr Matthias Pierce, lead author and research fellow from the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at The University of Manchester, said:

“It’s clear from this study that in terms of mental health, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on minority ethnic groups, those living in deprived areas, others experiencing financial difficulties and those who already had poorer mental health.

“But also we find a large proportion of the population has remained resilient to the effects of the pandemic.

“The data we used are superior to other surveys because the UK Household Longitudinal Study uses a high quality representative random sample and includes groups such as the digitally excluded who might not otherwise participate.

“Other surveys, especially those which use social media, are often unrepresentative and can lead to unreliable results.”

Senior author, Professor Kathryn Abel from The University of Manchester said:

“We are increasingly aware that social and economic advantages have an important influence on how well people are able to cope with challenges that appear to have affected everyone equally.

“The health and social inequalities we already know about for women and for people in poverty relate to different burdens of stressful life events and different resources to deal with them.

“These remain relevant and are important reasons for the differences we are seeing in the mental health trajectories across the pandemic.

She added:

“For people in ethnic minorities, their experience of the pandemic has meant dealing with both existing discrimination and inequalities alongside higher risks of severe illness, disability and, of course, death.

“This represents a devastating landscape for their mental health borne out in our findings.

“We must respond by making sure services are aware of these disparities and that their offerings are culturally sensitive and appropriate for the complexity of unmet need.”

Find out more

Read the article, 'Mental health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: a latent class trajectory analysis using longitudinal UK data', in the journal, The Lancet Psychiatry.

Visit the School of Health Sciences at City, University of London webpage.