Coronavirus and the introduction of lockdown measures significantly raised mental health challenges, particularly for the most vulnerable groups, a study has found.
The research, by the University of Bath and published in the journal American Psychologist, is the first to examine people’s coping styles in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It drew on survey responses from more than 800 people recruited online who answered questions over a 10-day period from April 17 to 26 – when the UK was in full lockdown.
Results found that a quarter of those who took part had significantly elevated anxiety and depression, exacerbated by lockdown and isolation.
Almost 15% of participants reached clinical levels of health anxiety, which focuses on the fear of having or contracting a serious illness despite medical reassurance.
Reaching clinical levels means their health anxiety had become distressing and was likely to be causing preoccupation and disruption to normal activities.
Dr Hannah Rettie, from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused global uncertainty which has had a direct, detrimental effect on so many people across the UK and around the world.
“People have been unsure when they would see relatives again, job security has been rocked, there is an increased threat to many people’s health, and Government guidance is continuously changing, leading to much uncertainty and anxiety.
“What our research focused in on is how some individuals have struggled to tolerate and adapt to these uncertainties – much more so than in normal times.
“These results have important implications as we move to help people psychologically distressed by these challenging times in the weeks, months and years ahead.”
Participants who classed themselves as “vulnerable” according to Government categories reported twice the rates of health-related anxiety than the general population.
They were on average more anxious and depressed, with anxiety and health anxiety significantly higher than in non-vulnerable groups.
The average age of participants in the study was 38 years old, with 22% of people who took part having a pre-existing medical condition.
Participants, recruited online and through social media, were 80% female and 20% male.
Dr Jo Daniels also of the Department of Psychology at Bath, described the research as “important” and said it could help tailor existing psychological treatments.
“We are also now better informed as to the likely number of the population that are experiencing clinical levels of health-related anxiety,” Dr Daniels said.
“This may serve to normalise distress at this difficult time and promote the uptake of emerging models of Covid-19 related distress for those who may need support at this time of uncertainty.”
Dr Daniels stressed that anxiety is a “normal response” to abnormal situations, such as a pandemic, and can be helpful to encourage behaviours such as hand-washing and social distancing.
“Yet for many, as reflected in our findings, anxiety is reaching distressing levels and may continue despite easing of restrictions – it is essential we create service provision to meet this need, which is likely to be ongoing, particularly with current expectations of a second wave. Further longitudinal research is needed to establish how this may change over time,” Dr Daniels said.
The researchers suggest that clinicians could use the research to target intolerance of uncertainty as part of standard psychological therapies, focusing on developing coping skills to reduce distress.
This could be extended to public resources, drawing out people’s abilities to manage uncertainty and reduce reliance on strategies such as denial or self-blame, they say.
A Government spokesman said: “We recognise the impact that this unprecedented global pandemic can have on people’s mental health.
“NHS mental health services have remained open, delivering support online and over the phone, and we published guidance at the beginning of lockdown to provide advice on steps individuals can take to support their wellbeing and manage mental health.
“We have also awarded £4.2 million to mental health and wellbeing charities like Samaritans, Young Minds and Bipolar UK. This is in addition to £5 million already made available to charities through the Coronavirus Mental Health Response Fund.”