December 22, 2020
2 min read
Anxiety and depression levels during the COVID-19 pandemic reached their peak at its early stages then declined rapidly, likely because people adapted to circumstances, according to study results published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
“Some sources suggest that during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health deteriorated before the stay-at-home orders (ie, lockdowns) were introduced,” Daisy Fancourt, PhD, of the department of behavioral science and health at the University College London, and colleagues wrote. “Given these findings, what remains to be understood is whether mental health continued to worsen as lockdown continued, or whether there were any patterns of stabilization or improvement. Similarly, it is unknown whether mental health improved or whether new stressors arose for individuals as lockdown measures were eased.”
In the current prospective longitudinal observational study, the investigators aimed to assess the trajectories of depression and anxiety over the 20 weeks following announcement of widespread lockdowns in England, as well as to compare the growth trajectories by individual characteristics. They analyzed data of 36,520 participants with three follow-up measures and no missing values who were included in the UCL COVID-19 Social Study. Weekly U.K. data from March 21 on anxiety were available from the Generalized Anxiety Disorder assessment and on depressive symptoms from the Patient Health Questionnaire.
Results showed an average depression score of 6.6 and an average anxiety score of 5.7 in the first week. Levels for both declined across the first 20 weeks following lockdowns in England. The researchers observed the fastest decreases across the strict lockdown period, between weeks 2 and 5, and symptoms plateaued as lockdown measures were further eased, between weeks 16 and 20. Risk factors for higher anxiety and depression levels at the start of lockdown included being a woman or younger, having lower educational attainment, lower income, or preexisting mental health conditions, as well as living alone or with children. As lockdown continued, many disparities in experiences were reduced; however, differences remained evident 20 weeks after lockdown began.
“As countries face potential future lockdowns, these data emphasize the importance of supporting individuals in the lead-up to lockdown to try to reduce distress; yet these data also suggest that individuals might be able to adapt relatively fast to the new psychological demands of life in lockdown,” Fancourt and colleagues wrote. “But because inequalities in mental health have persisted, it is key to find ways of supporting vulnerable groups during this pandemic.”