COVID-19’s mental health impacts may outlast the pandemic, especially for the UK’s young adults

Factors linked to mental health deterioration include personality, worries about catching COVID-19, susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and level of online/social media interaction

Photo by Külli Kittus / Unsplash

With more than 50 million vaccine doses administered, the UK vaccination program is helping the nation make progress against COVID-19. At the same time, researchers have identified COVID-19’s impact on mental health as a persistent problem that may outlast the current pandemic.

In support of UK Mental Health Awareness Week, we have completed a new analysis of the mental health impacts recorded in our survey of UK adults released last month. This was an UK representative survey conducted online with Ipsos MORI’s Knowledge Panel.

Our primary findings are telling:

  • 55% of people reported feeling worse in their mental health compared to before the pandemic, with young adults aged 18–34 affected the most
  • Personality, worries and beliefs about COVID-19, and online/social media use are the factors that correlate most strongly with worsened mental health
  • Online/social media interaction, conspiracy beliefs, and tendency to negativity may explain the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health

Each of these findings are detailed in the following sections. The more we understand the whole picture — who are the most affected people, and especially why they are affected — the better that NHS Commissioners, Mental Health Trusts, GPs, and patient support organisations can work together to identify precise, effective interventions to support and uplift those in need.

55% of people reported feeling worse in their mental health compared to before the pandemic, with young adults aged 18–34 affected the most

In our survey, 21% of people showed symptoms of depression while 23% of people showed symptoms of anxiety. However, this does not capture the full extent of the impact of the pandemic on mental health.

Worryingly, more than one in three people (37%-43%) said they felt worse in February 2021 than they felt before the pandemic started.

Stacked column chart showing percentage of people who felt worse now, better now or same compared to before the pandemic in anxiety and depression measures, or don’t know. 37% to 43% of people felt worse now.

More than half (55%) of people reported feeling worse in at least one of these areas.

Young adults have been disproportionately affected in their mental health during the pandemic compared to older adults. Of people aged 18–34, 66% reported feeling worse in at least one mental health outcome compared to 51% in 35 year olds and over — a 15 percentage point difference.

Column chart showing the percentage of people who reported worse mental health now compared to before the pandemic. 67% and 64% of 18–24 and 25–34 year olds, respectively, reported a deterioration of mental health during the pandemic compared to 55% and 48%, respectively, of 35–54 year olds and 55 plus.

Personality, worries and beliefs about COVID-19, and social media use are the factors that correlate most strongly with worsened mental health

We examined a number of factors that could potentially be associated with worsening mental health, as illustrated in the following graphic:

Graphic showing seven potential categories of predictors of mental health deterioration during the pandemic. These are: demographics and health vulnerabilities, trust in government, COVID-19 information sources, personality traits, experience with the healthcare system, personal experiences with COVID-19, and knowledge and perception of COVID-19

Of these potential factors, we found that the top associations with worsened mental health, compared to before the pandemic, were:

  • Looking at the personality traits — neuroticism, agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, and imagination — those who have more of a tendency towards negativity (neuroticism) and are less agreeable (less empathetic towards others/more selfish) were more likely to have worsened in their mental health:
  • Those who have more negative emotionality were 38% more likely to have reported worsened mental health, compared to those who did not have a tendency towards negativity.
  • Those who are the the least agreeable were 27% more likely to have reported feeling worse, compared to those who are most agreeable
  • Those who worried a great deal about catching COVID-19 were 29% more likely to have reported worse mental health than those who did not worry about it at all.
  • Those most likely to believe in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 were 18% more likely to worsen in mental health compared to those who did not believe in conspiracy theories, like “COVID-19 was caused by a ring of people who secretly manipulate world events” and “COVID-19 is being exploited by the government to control people.”
  • Those who interact online or on social media about COVID-19 more than once a day were 13% more likely to have worsened in mental health compared to those who never interact online.
  • Those who reported to be in very poor health were 12% more likely to worsen in mental health than those with very good health.
  • Those who believed that most people with COVID-19 experienced no symptoms were 11% more likely to worsen in mental health than those who did not believe this.

These findings can be categorized as mental health risk factors and mental health protective factors, as illustrated in this graphic:

Graphic showing mental health risk factors of: tendency to experience negative emotions, worry about catching COVID-19, beliefs about COVID-19, interacting online and on social media about COVID-19, and mental health protective factors of agreeableness and overall health. These factors fall into the four categories of personality, knowledge and perception of COVID-19, COVID-19 information sources, and demographics and health vulnerabilities.

Online/social media interaction, conspiracy beliefs, and tendency to negativity may explain the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health

In addition to looking at who are the most affected people, we also wanted to understand why younger adults had been disproportionately affected in their mental health during the pandemic. Notably, younger adults interacted online and on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic more frequently, were more likely to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and were more predisposed towards negative emotions (more neurotic). As discussed above, all three of these factors are linked to risk of worsening mental health.

Grouped column chart showing larger percentages of the 18–34 age group frequently interacting online or on social media, believing in conspiracy theories, and having a tendency toward negative emotions, compared to the 35+ age group, with differences of 7 to 13 percentage points.

We explored which factors were most responsible for the differences observed between younger and older adults. Of the 15% difference in the proportion of people who reported worse mental health between the 18–34 (66%) and the 35+ (51%) age groups, we found that:

  • Tendency towards negative emotions explained 30% of this difference;
  • Interacting online or on social media explained 13% of this difference; and
  • Belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories explained 6% of this difference.

Recommendations for action and further research

Personality factors such as tendency towards negativity (neuroticism) or ability to show empathy to others (agreeableness) play a role in differentiating those who have worsened in their mental health during the pandemic.

If a truly causal link does exist, these factors may be less amenable to change in the short-term. However, our research has shown that there are other significant correlates. The data suggests that the government, care providers, researchers, and patient support groups may be able to positively impact mental health for young adults by:

  • Proactively addressing their worries about the disease by sharing progress in research and with the national vaccination program;
  • Engaging with them on “new” media platforms such as social media tools via influencers and peers willing to share their experiences; and
  • Focusing on (respectfully) debunking the more common conspiracy theories.

Methodology:

Surgo Ventures reported last month on major results from a nationally representative online survey of 3,658 adults conducted from February 18–24, 2021 with Ipsos MORI’s UK Knowledge Panel. Using a proprietary framework for analyzing human behavior called CUBES (to Change behavior, Understand Barriers, Enablers, and Stages of change), Surgo divided people into psychobehavioral segments, focusing on the specific barriers those segments perceive to getting vaccinated, in order to drive solutions to increase vaccine uptake.

We completed further analysis of the mental health impacts recorded in the same survey along a number of demographic, behavioural and experiential factors. We used validated PHQ-2 and GAD-2 questions to assess symptoms of anxiety and depression. While surveys by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and others have tracked snapshots of the current state of mental health in the population, our survey went beyond by asking people to report how their mental health and wellbeing has changed when compared to before the pandemic: “Thinking about your answers to [the previous mental health questions], did you generally feel the same way before the pandemic started?”

Using a range of predictive factors and demographics assessed in the survey as well as background personality factors recorded when they registered to join the Ipsos Knowledge Panel, we focused our analysis on the following questions:

  1. What are the major demographic, personality, experiential, behavioural, and attitudinal factors associated with mental health deterioration over the course of the pandemic?
  2. Why has the mental health of young adults (18–34) been affected to a greater degree than that of older adults over the course of the pandemic?

We examine Q1 by building logistic regression models, using lasso (least absolute shrinkage and selection operator) for variable selection and model refinement. We investigate Q2 by building simple mediation models.

This work was made possible by everyone at Surgo Ventures, including but not limited to (in alphabetical order): Daisy Chung, Abigail Faylor, Peter Smittenaar, Tony Thomas, and Adele Wang.

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Surgo Ventures

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We use all the tools available from behavioral science, data science, and artificial intelligence to unlock solutions that will save and improve people’s lives.

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