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Largest study to date measures impact of pandemic and first lockdown on mental health and wellbeing in UK

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The largest study of its kind ever conducted on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown in the UK reveals wide-ranging positive and negative effects on the population’s mental health and wellbeing. Published today (16 July) in Nature Communications, the findings help identify those that may be most at risk, and benefits that could be carried forward as the country emerges from the pandemic. 

Supported by the UK DRI and led Dr Adam Hampshire, UK DRI Associate member based at Imperial College London, the ‘Great British Intelligence Test’ has been collecting data from the beginning of 2020 throughout the pandemic to better understand the UK’s cognition and mental health. It reveals that a range of factors such as a person’s age, occupation and living arrangements heavily influenced people’s experience of the initial stages of the pandemic. 

It’s clear to see that nearly everyone’s everyday life, mental health and outlook has been profoundly affected by this pandemic and the associated lockdowns, but in very different ways. This unique study helps us go beyond average effects in order to quantify individual impact and identify where our most vulnerable are in society. Study Lead, Dr Adam Hampshire

With the help of the BBC2’s Horizon programme, over 370,000 members of the public took part in the study, either immediately prior to the pandemic (January 2020) or at the height of lockdown (May-June 2020). Using an online survey, the team asked a series of questions about mental health including how often the participant had experienced a specified symptom (e.g. feeling down, depressed or anxious) during the past weeks. Over the whole population, the largest impact of the pandemic was on anxiety levels and age was the biggest factor with older people (60-80 years old) most affected. 

Study Lead, Dr Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Science at Imperial College London, and Associate Member of the UK DRI, said:

“Although anxiety levels increased across all ages, older people were disproportionately affected, also showing higher levels of depression, and getting fewer hours of sleep. There are multiple reasons why this may be the case including isolation from loved ones and the worries that come with being the most at risk to the virus. I believe this older demographic has not received enough attention and must be prioritised for care and mental health interventions, especially those who are clinically vulnerable and may feel left behind as we move out of lockdown.” 

Other vulnerable demographics were highlighted from the surveys: 

  • Before the pandemic, teenagers and young adults (16-26 years old) showed substantially greater anxiety and depression symptoms than other age groups with a small decrease in depression around the first lockdown. Teenagers also reported the greatest disruption to lifestyle and conflict at home.
  • In response to changes brought about by the pandemic, health workers showed very large differences to the broader population, having less free time and being less likely to report positives such as being more relaxed. They also were more likely to report greater work engagement and less likely to report disrupted lifestyle.
  • Disabled or shielded people had some of the most negative perceptions, reporting little benefit from positives of the pandemic including greater free time, being more relaxed, more wildlife and a more pleasant environment.
  • People with pre-existing conditions that pre-dispose to Covid-19 risk, including diabetes, lung, heart and weakened immune system, scored highly on perceived ‘health concerns.’
  • Personality, technology use and compulsivity traits were strongly related and collectively accounted for substantial variation in pandemic impact. For example, people who reported having increased health concerns tended to have higher insecurity, addiction to technology and stress from technology. Notably, it was not the amount of time spent online, but type of online behaviour that predicted mental health problems such as reading news articles. 
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On some of the benefits felt by survey respondents during the first lockdown, Dr Hampshire said: 

The surveys also revealed that a surprising proportion of people experienced substantial positives from the first lockdown including a greater sense of community, improved environment, connection with loved ones, reduced commute times and more spare time for family and pursuits. There are things that we can learn from people’s positive experiences that can help us to improve our lives as we emerge from the pandemic. Notably, access to pleasant outdoor space was also very important in the perception of the pandemic, relating positively to people feeling less stressed and tired, having fewer health concerns and a more positive outlook. This data not only adds to growing evidence of the benefits of green space to mental health, but also shows that this is important in resilience against negatives of the pandemic.”

On the next steps, Dr Hampshire said: 

“Our next step in this study has been to re-contact survey respondents six and twelve months later to see how people have adapted to the prolonged pandemic conditions and how they are coping as lockdown measures ease. We’ll also be examining data collected from children under 16 as it’s so important to assess mental health effects in the lowest age groups. 

Additionally, we have reports from more than 50,000 people describing, in their own words, the main positives and negatives of the pandemic, their most useful coping strategies and their perspectives on the pandemic’s origins and governmental response. We will be publishing further work applying AI methods to derive new insights from this data, with the aim to learn as much as we can that can help us not only in future pandemics, but also as we emerge and begin to rebuild our daily lives.” 

This publication on mental health and wellbeing is just one of many studies Dr Hampshire is hoping to extract from this impressive and unique dataset. The group recently released findings in EClinicalMedicine in more than 84,000 people, showing that in some severe cases, Covid-19 infection was linked to substantial cognitive deficits for months, equivalent to the brain ageing by 10 years. 

Dr Hampshire is an Associate Member supporting the UK DRI Care Research and Technology Centre led by Prof David Sharp. A leader in design and development of behavioural diagnostics, his involvement in the work of the Centre facilitates the development of standardised assessments of cognition that can be scaled to large populations, helping us uncover how the brain changes in healthy ageing and dementia. 

The study is a collaboration between researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, the University of Chicago, the University of Southampton, and the NHS Foundation Trusts of Southern Health and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The ‘Great British Intelligence Test’ is still open for participants

See the full UK DRI press release for more insight from the study


Reference

Hampshire, A., Hellyer, P.J., Soreq, E. et al. Associations between dimensions of behaviour, personality traits, and mental-health during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. Nat Commun 12, 4111 (2021).

Article published: 16 July 2021

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