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People with pre-existing mental illnesses at further risk during pandemic restrictions, NCMH study finds

A recent study by the team at NCMH identified that people with a history of mental illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders before the pandemic experienced an elevated risk of poor mental health in lockdown. 

The paper, published by the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, found that 60% of participants reported that their mental health had worsened during the pandemic.

Lead author Dr Katie Lewis explained: “In our study of people with pre-existing mental health conditions, we observed high levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and low levels of wellbeing during the pandemic.

We found that participants with a history of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or eating disorders were particularly likely to report a deterioration in their mental health.

Understanding the impact on those with existing mental illnesses

As most studies had looked at the general population, NCMH set out to understand more about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals with lived experience of mental illness.

young black man sitting on sofa speaking to someone whose back is to the camera

Between June 2020 and August 2020, 2,869 people between 18-94 years old took part in the UK-based survey.

Participants were recruited through an online study as well as through healthcare services such as general practitioners, and hospital and community care.

Key factors associated with worsening mental health

General worry about the pandemic, trouble accessing mental health services, and sleeping less were the three key factors that increased the likelihood of people reporting that their mental health had worsened.

Other factors associated with poorer mental health included younger age, low income, income affected by COVID-19, and increased alcohol/drug use.

However, the study also found that participants of older age and who felt supported socially and by services reported better mental health.

NCMH deputy director and Professor Jon Bisson said: “This research highlights the very significant impact of the pandemic on many people with lived experience of mental illness.

“It also highlights the importance and positive influence of good support from friends, family and services.”

What next for mental health research on the pandemic?

The team is currently gathering information from the 10% of participants who reported improved mental health to understand what may have contributed to this.

In future studies, other areas of mental health will become a focus, such as psychotic symptoms, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviours. The team will also look at longitudinal research to compare the impact of the pandemic on certain conditions and symptoms over a longer period.

Dr Lewis concluded, “We would like to thank everyone who took part in the survey, especially during such a difficult time.”

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Catrin Hopkins

Catrin is the Communications Manager for NCMH and Cardiff University's MRC Centre.

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