Depressive symptoms and loneliness remained relatively stable but adversely affected during the first six weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic with adults over 60 years reporting the lowest levels of depressive symptoms.

The study led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry is the most detailed examination to date of the mental health and wellbeing of the UK adult population during the first six weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It found that suicidal thoughts increased over the first six weeks of the UK’s lockdown (one in ten or 9.8% by the end of this period), however other factors related to suicide risk such as symptoms of anxiety, levels of defeat and entrapment decreased across the same period. 

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to those in higher socio-economic groups, as well as those with pre-existing mental health conditions compared to those without.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s business

Dr Liz Scowcroft, Samaritans Head of Research and Evaluation, said: “The findings from this study are stark and leave us with no doubt that Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact on the nation's mental health. However, it is important to remember that a rise in suicides is not inevitable. Suicide is preventable and these results demonstrate that it’s more important than ever that effective support is available for those who need it most. As we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic, it is a priority for us to reach those struggling to cope and encourage them to seek help before they reach crisis point.

“Suicide prevention is everyone’s business, so we need to work together to ensure that no one has to face these things alone. It can be as simple as checking in with those around us who might be struggling and encouraging them to talk or reach out for support.”

The study is the first publication from a large scale longitudinal research programme in collaboration with, and funded by, Samaritans, SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health), and the Mindstep Foundation.

The researchers surveyed a national sample of 3077 adults in the UK, assessing a range of mental health factors, including: pre-existing mental health problems; suicide attempts and self-harm; suicidal thoughts; depression; anxiety; feelings of defeat; feelings of entrapment; mental wellbeing; and loneliness.

The research looked at three ‘waves’ of lockdown between March 31 and May 11. Participants have also been followed up throughout the pandemic, and further results will be published in the coming months.

Targeted mental health measures needed as pandemic continues

Further analysis into sub-groups showed worse mental health outcomes during the pandemic for females, young people (aged 18-29), those from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds and those with pre-existing mental health problems. Males reported lower levels of depressive symptoms than females.

Across all three waves, approximately one in four respondents (26.1%) experienced at least moderate levels of depressive symptoms. 

Professor Rory O’Connor, Chair in Health Psychology at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow, added: “While public health measures, such as lockdown, have been necessary to protect the general population, we know the effects of Covid-19 on the population’s mental health and wellbeing are likely to be profound and long-lasting. The findings from our study, showing in particular the increasing rates of suicidal thoughts, especially among young adults, is concerning, and show that we must be vigilant to this at-risk group.

“As we move through this pandemic, investigating the trajectory of mental health and wellbeing is crucial to giving us a better understanding of the challenges people face during this difficult time. By having such analysis and information, we can formulate targeted mental health measures and interventions for those most in need as this pandemic continues, as well as being prepared for future.”

The study also involved the University of Nottingham, University of Stirling, and the University of Leeds.