By Arj Singh
The number of people reporting “significant” depression and anxiety spiked when Boris Johnson announced a lockdown to tackle coronavirus last week, a study suggests.
More than a third of the 2,000 taking part (38%) reported significant depression and significant anxiety (36%), according to the University of Sheffield study.
This dropped the day after the prime minister urged everyone to stay at home, but levels of depression and anxiety over the whole of last week were elevated above normal levels.
Those aged under 35, living in a city, living alone or with children, with low incomes, with health conditions, or whose incomes have been hit by the pandemic also tended to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Those who felt that they belonged to their neighbourhood and who trusted their neighbours had lower levels.
Team leader Professor Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield, said: “We were surprised to see a spike in the number of people reporting significant levels of depression and anxiety immediately after the announcement of a lockdown.
“We are seeing initial evidence of a rise in psychological symptoms in the population but, nonetheless, the overall picture that emerges so far is of a nation that is well informed about Covid-19, taking appropriate action and resilient.
“The rates of reported mental health problems are higher but not dramatically different to those observed in previous, similar surveys – but those who have already taken a financial hit are more likely to feel anxious or depressed.”
Across the week, a quarter (25%) of women and nearly a fifth (18%) of men exhibited clinically meaningful symptoms of anxiety, 23% of women and 21% of men showed signs of depression, and 15% of women and 19% of men were stressed.
This was above the 15.7% of people who reported common psychiatric disorders in similar surveys before coronavirus “but not dramatically so”, the research said.
The flash study of 2,000 people between March 23 and March 27 was only announced last week and promised results “within days”.
It found that 32% of people had already lost income due to the pandemic.
The team also found that people have a good understanding of Covid-19 symptoms and how to avoid spreading it and that about 70% would definitely want to be vaccinated, if a vaccine was available.
However, on average people thought their risk of catching the virus in the next month was less than 50%.
The team said it would survey the same group again in the coming months.
Dr Duleeka Knipe, a mental health epidemiologist who focuses on suicide and self-harm at Bristol Medical School, described the research as “important”.
“The impact of the public health measures on people’s wellbeing are unknown and this study provides us one of the first insights into this.
“What’s reassuring is that the population levels of depression and anxiety reported in this study are similar to the underlying rates of these conditions in the population before Covid-19 hit.
“However, the study does highlight important groups of people who might be particularly vulnerable at this time and public policy needs to think of ways in which we can support these groups of individuals.
“It’ll also be important to keep a close eye on population levels of mental distress and coping during the upcoming weeks and months as these physical distancing measures continue.”
But Dr Andreas Reif, head of psychiatry at Goethe University in Frankfurt, said: “This is of limited use. It is a self-reported cross sectional study without proper assessment.
“So what we see is ‘depressive symptoms’, or worrying, but this is not ‘depression’ – depression usually does not come overnight.
“What we really need are thorough epidemiological studies on depression and suicide [attempts] over time, that also include pre-coronavirus data. We are currently doing exactly that in a large study, due out in late summer.”