Depression and anxiety rose sharply over Christmas in the UK

a person who is stressed
a person who is stressed

Levels of depression and anxiety rose sharply over December in the UK, especially among young adults, reaching similar levels to lockdown at the start of 2021, according to new findings from the Covid-19 Social Study led by UCL researchers.

The research also found that confidence in devolved governments’ handling of Covid-19 fell in England and Wales over the same period (between the end of November and start of January), but remained steady in Scotland. In England, the level of confidence was close to the lowest level recorded during the pandemic back in October 2020.

The new findings are based on a survey of 31,151 people taken in the first week of January 2022 as part of the ongoing Covid-19 Social Study, which has regularly surveyed more than 70,000 respondents since March 2020, tracking people’s experiences of the pandemic.

The new survey also found a drop - compared to the last survey, conducted in the week of 22-28 November - in reported life satisfaction and happiness, with life satisfaction and happiness reaching their lowest levels since March 2021.

Lead author Dr Daisy Fancourt (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care) said: "The findings reported here highlight the ongoing adverse effects of the pandemic on mental health. Even though there were many fewer restrictions this Christmas compared with Christmas 2020, levels of anxiety and depression were on a par with the same time last year. Our findings suggest that it is not just the presence of social restrictions that affect mental health but also concerns and stressors relating to high levels of the virus and a high risk of infection.

"The decrease in confidence in government to handle the pandemic likely contributed to the stresses many people faced over this period."

In terms of people’s concerns about Covid-19, the survey showed that the proportion of people concerned about catching or becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 increased sharply over the Christmas period, with:

Three in four (73%) people reported being concerned about non-Covid-19 NHS treatment being cancelled, postponed or otherwise adversely affected over the next three months. Sixty-four per cent of respondents also had a major worry about hospitals being overwhelmed. These fears were greatest amongst adults over the age of 30 compared to adults aged 18-29.

Meanwhile, 86% of respondents reported that their experiences and behaviours had been different over the Christmas period compared to typical Christmases, such as staying at home more, changing travel plans, meeting up with fewer people, shopping online rather than in-store, avoiding large gatherings, and making fewer plans. Younger adults (aged 18-29) reported the fewest differences to usual compared to older adults.

Compliance with guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 slightly increased over the Christmas period, indicating that people tightened up their behaviours. This pattern was seen clearly in 30- to 59-year-olds and 60+ year olds. However, only four in 10 (43%) people said they currently understood the rules fully or near fully and one in 10 (10%) said they did not understand them at all.

Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: "In addition to the increase in depression and anxiety over the Christmas period, it is worrying that the majority of people report not fully understanding the current ’rules’ in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This demonstrates there is an important communication challenge to be addressed by the government, so that people understand these rules - which have been subject to changes in recent weeks - and can comply with them."

Older adults were more likely over the Christmas period to maintain a safe distance when meeting (30% always for those aged 60+ vs 9% of those aged 18-29) as well as washing their hands, wearing face masks, increasing ventilation in indoor spaces and meeting outdoors, but adults under the age of 60 were more likely to take lateral flow tests and ask others to take them, the survey found.