Older people who shielded during the Covid-19 pandemic were nearly twice as likely to suffer with depressive symptoms compared to those who did not, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The study, which used data from more than 5,000 adults aged over 50, is the first of its kind to look at the effect of shielding on older people’s mental wellbeing.

Shielding was strongly associated with greater risks of depressive symptoms, anxiety, and lower quality of life

The data was collected during the first 8-9 month of the pandemic from April to December 2020, two of which were characterised by ongoing lockdowns.

Respondents were asked whether they shielded (not going out of the house for any reasons), stayed at home (leaving only for very limited purposes, such as shopping for food, exercise, or essential work) or neither during this time.

Their mental health was then assessed by asking questions about depressive symptoms, anxiety, wellbeing and quality of life.

Lead author, Dr Giorgio Di Gessa (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care), said: “We know from previous studies that the pandemic and policies restricting human interaction have posed a greater risk to mental health and wellbeing, especially among specific people in socioeconomic adversity, those with pre-existing poorer health, and those feeling lonely.

“In our study we therefore took all these factors into account to understand if shielding and staying at home were additional factors contributing to poorer mental health among older people.”

42% of adults who shielded at all times reported elevated depressive symptoms

The results showed that 42% of adults who shielded at all times reported elevated depressive symptoms compared to 23% of those who never shielded or stayed at home.

Older people shielding throughout the period studied also reported the lowest life satisfaction and quality of life scores.

The researchers accounted for pre-pandemic mental and physical health as well as for social contacts with friends and family and loneliness during the pandemic to understand if poorer mental health was driven by pre-existing conditions or circumstances.

Policy makers should be aware of the adverse consequences of shielding on mental health

Co-author of the study, Professor Debbie Price, said the results highlight the need for policy makers to “be aware of adverse consequences for the mental health and well-being of those advised to shield or stay at home.”

“If the long-term health and social wellbeing of older people is to be safeguarded, there must be careful thought given to addressing the mental health and wider needs of individuals at higher risk from Covid-19 variants, or future pandemics,” she concluded.