People with prior mental health problems hit harder by pandemic disruptions

Information Next Steps participants have shared with the study is helping researchers understand the factors that have made people more vulnerable to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.Sad young man in front of a wall

A research team analysing information provided by over 59,000 participants in 12 different studies, including Next Steps, found that people who had been experiencing higher levels of depression or anxiety before the pandemic have been more severely affected by disruption to jobs and healthcare during the pandemic.

A wide-ranging study

The researchers analysed the disruptions of the pandemic in three areas: healthcare (medication access, procedures or surgeries, and appointments); economic activity (employment, income, or working hours); and housing (change of address or household composition).

Greater likelihood of disruptions

The research team found that, across the studies, people with prior mental ill health were more likely to face economic and healthcare disruption, but had no greater likelihood of housing disruption. People with higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms before the pandemic were 24% more likely to have had delays to medical procedures, 12% more likely to lose their job, and 33% more likely to have had disruption to prescriptions or medication during the first eight to 10 months of the pandemic than those with average levels of anxiety and depression symptoms. People with more severe symptoms of depression or anxiety experienced a much greater likelihood of disruptions to jobs, income and healthcare.

The researchers noted that pre-pandemic psychological distress was generally more common among women, younger generations, ethnic minorities, and those with fewer qualifications, meaning the overall impact of disruption on these groups was  larger.

Dr Praveetha Patalay (UCL), senior author of the paper, said: “Our findings highlight that the wider health and economic impacts of the pandemic have been disproportionately experienced by those with mental health difficulties, potentially leading to worsening longer term outcomes, even post-pandemic, for those already experiencing poor mental health.”

Why this research matters

The information you and participants from other studies have provided has enabled researchers to shed light on important consequences of the pandemic. Anxiety and depression are often underreported to GPs and healthcare services, and pandemic disruptions can be hard to gauge, so these questions would have been very difficult to answer without studies that follow people throughout their lives such as Next Steps.

Study authors have called on policymakers to give greater support to those suffering from depression or anxiety, given the extra disruptions brought about by the pandemic.

Lead author Dr Giorgio Di Gessa (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Healthcare) said: “Policymakers should take these findings into account in the provision of future health care and economic support, as failing to address these disruptions risks widening health inequalities further. Special care should be taken by pharmacists and primary care staff to ensure people with mental health difficulties do not miss appointments, procedures and prescriptions.”

Find out more about this research

Pre-pandemic mental health and disruptions to healthcare, economic, and housing outcomes during COVID –19: evidence from 12 UK longitudinal studies by Giorgio Di Gessa, Jane Maddock, Michael J. Green et al was published in The British Journal of Psychiatry in September 2021.

This research was conducted as part of the COVID-19 Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing National Core Study, led by UCL researchers and funded by UKRI. Find out more about the research programme.