Psychological Distress Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic Among Adults in the United Kingdom Based on Coordinated Analyses of 11 Longitudinal Studies

How population mental health has evolved across the COVID-19 pandemic under varied lockdown measures is poorly understood, and the consequences for health inequalities are unclear.

Objective To investigate changes in mental health and sociodemographic inequalities from before and across the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 11 longitudinal studies.

Design, Setting, and Participants This cohort study included adult participants from 11 UK longitudinal population-based studies with prepandemic measures of psychological distress. Analyses were coordinated across these studies, and estimates were pooled. Data were collected from 2006 to 2021.

Exposures Trends in the prevalence of poor mental health were assessed in the prepandemic period (time period 0 [TP 0]) and at 3 pandemic TPs: 1, initial lockdown (March to June 2020); 2, easing of restrictions (July to October 2020); and 3, a subsequent lockdown (November 2020 to March 2021). Analyses were stratified by sex, race and ethnicity, education, age, and UK country.

Main Outcomes and Measures Multilevel regression was used to examine changes in psychological distress from the prepandemic period across the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological distress was assessed using the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, the Kessler 6, the 9-item Malaise Inventory, the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire, the 8-item or 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and the Centre for Epidemiological Studies–Depression across different studies.

Results In total, 49 993 adult participants (12 323 [24.6%] aged 55-64 years; 32 741 [61.2%] women; 4960 [8.7%] racial and ethnic minority) were analyzed. Across the 11 studies, mental health deteriorated from prepandemic scores across all 3 pandemic periods, but there was considerable heterogeneity across the study-specific estimated effect sizes (pooled estimate for TP 1: standardized mean difference [SMD], 0.15; 95% CI, 0.06-0.25; TP 2: SMD, 0.18; 95% CI, 0.09-0.27; TP 3: SMD, 0.21; 95% CI, 0.10-0.32). Changes in psychological distress across the pandemic were higher in women (TP 3: SMD, 0.23; 95% CI, 0.11, 0.35) than men (TP 3: SMD, 0.16; 95% CI, 0.06-0.26) and lower in individuals with below–degree level education at TP 3 (SMD, 0.18; 95% CI, 0.06-0.30) compared with those who held degrees (SMD, 0.26; 95% CI, 0.14-0.38). Increased psychological distress was most prominent among adults aged 25 to 34 years (SMD, 0.49; 95% CI, 0.14-0.84) and 35 to 44 years (SMD, 0.35; 95% CI, 0.10-0.60) compared with other age groups. No evidence of changes in distress differing by race and ethnicity or UK country were observed.

Conclusions and Relevance In this study, the substantial deterioration in mental health seen in the UK during the first lockdown did not reverse when lockdown lifted, and a sustained worsening was observed across the pandemic period. Mental health declines have been unequal across the population, with women, those with higher degrees, and those aged 25 to 44 years more affected than other groups.