A University of Cambridge study carried out a survey investigating the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on young adults’ mental health. The researchers wanted to better understand how people coped during this period, what helped them and how this can be translated into public health messaging to provide better support in potential future pandemics.
This study collected data on a sample of 1,000 young adults to track their mental health at the initial outbreak of the pandemic. The findings showed that young adults were significantly more distressed and less psychologically well and participants resilience (abilities that would usually help them to cope during stressful events) were not protecting them from the unique circumstances that occurred over the pandemic. This blog is a summary from an interview with the lead researcher, Anna Wiedemann, discussing the findings from the study, their implications, and future projects.
Introducing the study
University of Cambridge, third year PhD student, Anna Wiedemann, has been funded by the ARC East of England to invite back participants from the, Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network (NSPN) that collected data each year (in 3 intervals) from a general sample of 2,403 teenagers and young people (aged 14-24) from the London and Cambridgeshire areas. In this geographic area, the study recruited a representative sample across the whole population including ethnicity, county of birth, deprivation and gender. The NSPN study results included rich data amongst others tracking the participants’ mental health and their developmental changes through adolescence over 2012-2018. This project was in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, University College London and the University of Cambridge, find out more here.
When the survey reopened in May 2020, participants who took part were still young during the pandemic (sample ranging from 18 yrs to early 30s with an average age of 25). Wiedemann and her research team could collect comparative data as they had an understanding of the participants mental health for years prior to the pandemic. This meant that the researchers could tell what specific circumstances, (such as where they grew up, their family environment, friendship support, behavioural traits and any recorded mental health disorders), contributed to the ways emerging adults coped, or did not cope over the initial pandemic outbreak in 2020. The team wanted to understand which factors meant that young adults were more at risk of ill mental health, while also moving beyond this, to find out what helped people, so that this information can be used in another pandemic outbreak and influence future policy.
“We wanted to understand what pre-pandemic factors helped young adults during the initial outbreak of the pandemic so that we could translate this into public health messaging and help people in the future should there be a new pandemic.”
What did the study find out:
Below is a summary of four important findings that came from the study. For more information on the findings, read the full report here.
1) People were more distressed and less psychology well during the initial outbreak of the pandemic.
The research team were alarmed by the rise of people with very serious mental health issues, which would mean that they would severely struggle with everyday life. About 9% of the sample had serious mental health issues, which is an increase in 3% compared to before the pandemic. This translates to 1 in 10 (10%) of their data sample with serious impediment.
2) Close to 30% had levels of anxiety and depression thresholds that would make them eligible for talking therapy.
The data assessing whether the participants would meet the threshold to qualify for talking therapy through the NHS was added during the pandemic (as it involves a specific set of scales to asses this). Although the research team cannot compare this data with data from before the pandemic and assess if there is an increase, 30% of the sample is more compared to what other papers with similar samples report before the pandemic.
3) The study found that the resilience factors, which would normally protect people against ill mental health, were not protective.
There is a multitude of changeable and unchangeable factors that contribute to the way someone withstands adversity and potentially grows despite life’s downturns, often referred to as resilience. It is often recorded that resilience factors such as, high levels of family and friendship support and good self-esteem are protective when coping with stressful or potentially traumatic events Wiedemann and her team used data collected on participants’ resilience collected before the pandemic to assess to which extent these would be helping young adults to cope with the initial outbreak of the pandemic. However, the research team found that in this unique circumstance, these resilience factors didn’t make a difference. The proactive aspect of these resilience factors were mild.
4) Participants who had a previous diagnosis of depression or an anxiety condition were disproportionately affected.
It was reported that people with a previous diagnosis of any health condition which in this sample was largely driven by a diagnosis of depression and anxiety were impacted the most. They were disproportionately distressed, compared to someone that had not previously been diagnosed with these conditions.
What do these findings mean?
The findings were very important as they revealed that at a time when young adults’ were more distressed and less psychologically well, mental health care services were largely inaccessible, either having limited access or were not available.
“This is something we need to learn from. We know that people are more likely to suffer from ill mental health during a future pandemic where there might be lockdowns or public restrictions. We therefore need to provide adequate access to mental health care. This is essential.”
There is still much to find out, regarding the long-term effects of mental health service closures i.e. the impact on waiting lists for services due to lockdown closures. This is an important finding in terms of understanding risk factors.
The research team were not too surprised by the finding that resilience factors did not protect people when coping under these new circumstances in the initial covid outbreak. The pandemic was an unprecedented event that affected the whole population, and a lot of the resilience factors, such as friendship and family support involved social activities, and this is exactly where the pandemic hit. Due to the public restrictions and lockdowns, people did not have the same extent of contact with others. Moreover, due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic, it may be that the resilience factors were unable to protect people in the short term but could help people in the long term.
Senior researcher Professor Peter Jones from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, said:
"The combined effects on young adults during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic were dramatic. Anna’s results revealed that the majority were affected in some way. A few fared well, perhaps reflecting the first lockdown being helpful for some – being spared stresses at work or in education, perhaps. But for most, their normal resilience and coping strategies were simply overwhelmed by the combination of threats. Working out how to lessen these if similar circumstances occur again is important for policy where fear was a lever to keep us at home, and for practice. Anna’s forthcoming qualitative study should illuminate these factors."
There are a lot of unanswered questions on the long-term impact COVID has had on young people’s mental health.
This summer (July - October 2022), the research team invited participants back to see how young adults have been doing two and a half years after the initial outbreak. This new project will revisit the participants resilience and see if they were beneficial over the long term. They may not of had much significant impact in the short term, but it is not yet known if they had long term impact. Additionally, the researchers carried out 30 interviews, choosing people from the sample who represent a diverse range of voices, to further understand the experiences of young adults during this unprecedented time in UK history.
The research team hope to find out who the people are that are still struggling with their mental health to see how they can be supported, while also finding out who in the sample is doing well and why, to find out what these factors are and how they can transform this into public messaging to help people cope in future pandemics.
Wiedemann, A., Stochl, J., Neufeld, S.A.S. et al. The impact of the initial COVID-19 outbreak on young adults’ mental health: a longitudinal study of risk and resilience factors. Sci Rep 12, 16659 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-21053-2
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