Distress in England’s young adults has risen sharply since Covid, study shows | Mental health

Young adults are bearing the brunt of a “growing mental health crisis” in England, according to researchers who warn that levels of severe distress have risen steadily in adults since the start of the pandemic.

The disturbing trend may be driven by an “unprecedented series of events” including the cost of living and healthcare crises and the impact of the pandemic itself, the researchers said, adding there was an urgent need to address the causes and improve funding for mental health services.

“The last three years has seen society undergo a unique series of stressors that could be negatively impacting mental health in the way that we’re seeing,” said Dr Leonie Brose, a mental health researcher at King’s College London who is the study’s senior author. “Ensuring that these basic needs are met – financial security, stable housing, and access to health – may well help ease the pressure that people are feeling.”

The team surveyed more than 51,000 adults each month from April 2020, a week into the country’s first Covid lockdown, until December 2022, when the global health emergency was coming to an end.

While the proportion of adults who reported any kind of psychological distress remained fairly stable over the period at about one-third, those reporting severe distress rose in all age groups apart from those aged 65 and over. For those aged 18 to 64, severe distress rose from 5.7% to 8.3% over the period.

The most striking rise in severe distress was among young adults in the second half of the survey, from December 2021 to December 2022, when reports from 18- to 24-year-olds increased from 13.6% to 20.2%.

The researchers used a well-tested measure called the Kessler psychological distress scale to rank people’s responses to the monthly survey questions. Volunteers were asked how often in the past 30 days – from never to all the time – they had experienced various negative feelings such as worthlessness and hopelessness. Scores above a particular threshold are considered indicative of “severe distress”.

Writing in Jama Network Open, the authors describe how beyond young adults, those from low-income backgrounds also reported a sharp rise in severe distress, fuelling concerns that the cost of living crisis has forced people in more deprived areas to cut back on food and other essentials.

“These findings provide evidence of a growing mental health crisis in England and underscore an urgent need to address its cause and to adequately fund mental health services,” the researchers write.

Sir Simon Wessely, a regius professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, who was not involved in the study, said it was particularly concerning that the rise in more severe distress was seen mostly in young people.

But he cautioned against labelling the trend a mental health crisis. “Calling this a crisis is like telling people not to panic. The people who are panicking aren’t listening to you, and those who aren’t panicking start to wonder if they should. The last thing we need is kneejerk reactions taken in a hurry, before we have understood the problem, let alone properly tested the solutions.

“Something is not going well around the mental health of children and young people, and that has been the case for some time. I am acutely aware that we are the poor relations when it comes to funding, but unless and until that changes, we might bear in the mind the possibly apocryphal words of the physicist Lord Rutherford: ‘We have no more money, so we need to think’.”


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