HOW HAS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IMPACTED OUR MENTAL HEALTH?
This is a question that has been the cause of much speculation on social media and in the press over the past few months. Here at Forth, we were keen to get to the bottom of it and find out the truth about the extent of the impact.
In early July, we conducted a nation-wide survey of 2,000 participants to find out how UK mental health levels have changed from before the Covid-19 lockdown, to after. We also asked the participants about their lifestyles and how their behaviours have changed since lockdown. The results are staggering.
THE MENTAL HEALTH RESULTS
Across the board, the level of the UK’s mental health issues has risen. Based on emotions felt at least once a week, we found that:
- National anxiety levels have increased by 60%.
- Stress by 46%.
- Depression by 46%.
- Fear by 107%.
- Worry by 89%.
- Loneliness by 64%.
When asked what topics participants were most worried about, we found ‘health and wellbeing’ to top the list, closely followed by ‘financial concerns’, and finally ‘job security’. Additionally, over 50% of participants were worried about their own health/wellbeing during lockdown, and over 50% were worried about someone else’s health/wellbeing during lockdown.
Of course, there are many reasons why mental health issues have risen, the primary one being the global pandemic. Nevertheless, we wanted to dig a little bit deeper to see whether the significant lifestyle changes the UK experienced throughout lockdown were contributing to the suspected rise in poor mental health.
THE LIFESTYLE RESULTS
To understand how behaviour has changed among the majority of people in the UK, and to find out what impact this was having on general mental health levels, we asked participants a series of questions in regards to lifestyle habits such as sleep, exercise, food consumption, and alcohol consumption.
The results show that just under 37% of participants reported getting less sleep during lockdown, with 50% of these people losing over 1.5hrs in total. Additionally, we discovered that 29% of participants consumed more alcohol during the Covid-19 lockdown, and 48% consumed more unhealthy snacks. Unsurprisingly, 39% of participants gained weight during lockdown.
With a decrease in sleep quality and an increase in unhealthy behaviour, likely triggered as a coping mechanism, it isn’t a shock that during Covid-19 lockdown, there was a 76% increase in stress felt every day and 52% increase in stress felt several times a week. In addition, 38% experienced stress once a week pre-lockdown, and this increased to 56% post-lockdown.
One of the biggest anomalies, by demographic, to the general survey trends was 18-24 year olds. 50% of this age group did more exercise during lockdown, and 42% got more sleep during lockdown (18% got 1.5-2 hours extra). This is the only age group to get more sleep during lockdown. However, 62% snacked on more unhealthy foods and 45% ate more takeaways.
Regardless of the increase in unhealthy consumption, the lifestyle results show lockdown proved beneficial to 18-24 year olds. This is further backed by the mental health results, with the general anxiety felt by this age group reducing by 8% during Covid-19 lockdown. The reduction in anxiety levels is unique to this age group and runs contrary to the findings from all other demographics.
One of the best ways to understand the survey’s findings is by area. Each region in the UK is subject to its own micro-climate of socio-economic factors that has been augmented by the Covid-19 lockdown. One of the regions that was hardest hit, was the North-East of England.
During lockdown, 66% of North-East participants were out of work. This resulted in significant increases in home baking (47%), alcohol consumption (37%), and weight gain (47%). From the results, these increases are clearly contributing factors to the 82% increase in anxiety felt ‘several times a week’ in the region.
In London, there was an overall increase in unhealthy consumption, with 33% eating more takeaways during Covid-19 lockdown. The knock on effect was 45% of Londoners gaining weight - this is 5% higher than the national average. There was also a 48% increase in anxiety felt every day and 76% several times a week, indicative that unhealthy consumption creates a two-way street with poor mental health.
If we look at the mental health findings by region, Scotland was the loneliest area in the UK during lockdown, with 44% of people feeling lonely at least once a week. The West Midlands was the most anxious, with 58% of people feeling this way at least once a week. The West Midlands was also the most depressed and scared region with 42% and 44%, respectively, feeling these emotions at least once a week. The East of England was the most stressed with 59% of people reporting these feelings at least once a week. And the South West was the most worried region, with 65% of people feeling worried at least once a week.
To try and narrow our data down even further, we also examined the mental health levels according to city. Although intriguing, the UK’s general trends are more noticeable according to region than individual city.
Although lockdown has had a broadly negative impact on the nation’s general health and wellbeing, there are exceptions, with some specific cities showing green shoots of positive change. In Derry, 46% of those surveyed lost weight. Likewise, 18% of those surveyed from York started to exercise for the first time. Both of these findings were the highest reported increase by city.
The key findings per city were:
- Dudley is the most anxious city in the UK (during lockdown, 40% felt anxious every day & 40% felt anxious several times a week).
- Kingston upon Hull is the more stressed city in the UK (29% felt stressed every day).
- Dudley is the most depressed city in the UK (40% felt depressed every day).
- Walsall is the most scared city in the UK (28% felt scared every day).
- Newport is the most worried city in the UK (37% felt worried every day).
- Warrington is the loneliest city in the UK (26% felt lonely every day).
- 77% of people from St Albans worried about their own health during lockdown. This is the highest percentage by city in the UK.
- 80% of people from St Albans worried about someone else’s health during lockdown. This is the highest percentage by city in the UK, shortly followed by Chelmsford with 80%.
- 57% of people from Carlisle ate more takeaways during lockdown. This is the highest in the UK.
- 55% of people from Durham drank more alcohol. This is the highest in the UK.
- 57% of people from Newcastle gained weight. This is the highest in the UK.
- 46% of people from Derry lost weight. This is the highest in the UK.
- 17% of people from York started to exercise for the first time. This is the highest in the UK.
So, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our mental health and lifestyles?
Overall, the findings from our survey paint a mostly negative picture of the impact the Covid-19 lockdown has had on the UK’s mental health and lifestyle behaviours. There has been a significant increase in unhealthy behaviours such as takeaway consumption, unhealthy snack consumption, alcohol consumption and home baking. In addition, there has been a marked decrease in general sleep quality. The consequence of this is weight gain and poor mental health.
It would be wrong to say that an unhealthy lifestyle is the only reason for an increase in the UK’s mental health issues, we are of course in the middle of a pandemic. That said, our findings reveal how unhealthy behaviour contributes to a decline in mental health; both feed the other and create a spiral effect that can be hard to overcome.
On the bright side, the survey results show that there have been some positive green shoots to come out of the lockdown, especially in terms of exercise uptake. 18-24 year olds are getting more sleep and feeling less anxious, and areas with high numbers of elderly people are doing more exercise.
The UK, like the rest of the world, has experienced major behavioural changes over the past few months and it’s unsurprising that there has been a knock-on effect of unhealthy choices contributing to a decline in mental health. That said, there is hope. Our findings reveal areas and behaviours that need focus and improvement across society, in terms of mental and physical health. If we can make these a priority going forward, there will be a noticeable improvement and a healthier society.