Lockdown doubled risk of mental distress on UK adolescents with previous mental health difficulties

Adolescents aged 17-19 years old with previous mental health issues were 100% more likely to have suffered further mental distress as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, according to new research by the University of Roehampton.

The study, conducted during the UK’s first national lockdown in response to Covid-19,comprised nearly 1,000 adolescents from the Millennium Cohort Study (MSC) which provides ongoing data from 19,000 young people born across the UK between 2000 and 2002. It foundthose who had showed symptoms of psychological and mental health difficulties prior to lockdown experienced more stress, conflict and loneliness during lockdown compared to those who showed little or no previous signs of mental health struggles.

Participants aged 17 completed mental health questionnaires from January 2018 to March 2019 and again in May 2020 when aged 19 in the midst of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown. The study identified four distinct psychological profiles across the participants’ sample – low-symptom class (60% of sample) who displayed minimal psychological issues, high-symptom class (23%) who showed high problematic behaviours, substance/behavioural class (12%) at high risk of substance abuse and emotion-dysregulation class (5%) who reported bad sleep quality and mental health difficulties.

The research found that participants in the high-symptom and emotion-dysregulation classeswere 68% more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and 33% more likely to feel a lack of social support during lockdown. The study also revealed a disproportionate percentage of participants in the high-symptom (82%) and in emotion-dysregulation (77%) classes were women, with these women having 63% greater risk of showing higher mental distress than men in these psychological classes during lockdown.

While adolescents in the emotion-dysregulation class were the smallest represented in the sample, this group displayed the worst adjustment to the UK’s lockdown, including a 20% increase in alcoholic drinks consumed per day compared to a 6% increase from adolescents in the low-symptom class. Lockdown also had a greater negative impact on personal finances among emotion-dysregulation adolescents, with 56% reporting a worse financial situation than before the pandemic, compared to 22% of low-symptom adolescents.

The findings come as a new report by the children’s commissioner for England this week highlighted the ongoing difficulties for children seeking mental health support, with only 32% of children able to access mental health treatment from 2020-21.

Professor of Developmental Psychopathology Cecilia A. Essau, lead researcher on the study commented: “This research provides further evidence of the severe mental health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, which have been acutely felt by younger members of the UK’s population. As today’s adolescents take their first steps into adulthood, it’s imperative the Government provides greater funding and support for them to receive access to crucial mental health support that will allow them to prosper in life rather than be plagued by the consequences of lockdown.”