CPFT consultant psychiatrist Dr Konstantinos Ioannidis has been helping a national team of researchers to find out how the pandemic has impacted cognition and mental health.
The largest study of its kind has now published findings in Nature Communications , revealing wide-ranging positive and negative effects on the UK population’s mental health and wellbeing.
Anxiety levels increased, with older people (60-80 years old) most affected, health workers reported having less free time and greater work engagement, and a third of people reported drinking more alcohol during the first pandemic lockdown. The findings help identify those that may be most at risk, and benefits to take forward as the country emerges from the pandemic.
Konstantinos (pictured above) said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a pervasive psycho-socio-economic impact in our society and this research is taking a holistic approach to capture this and identify vulnerabilities, as well as points of resilience during this challenging time. I am looking forward to further updates as this essential work continues.”
Supported by the UK Dementia Research Institute and led by researchers from Imperial College London, the Great British Intelligence Test has been collecting data from the beginning of 2020 throughout the pandemic. It reveals that a range of factors such as a person’s age, occupation and living arrangements heavily influenced experiences of the initial stages of the pandemic.
With the help of the BBC2’s Horizon programme, over 370,000 members of the public took part in the study, either immediately prior to the pandemic (January 2020) or at the height of lockdown (May-June 2020). Using an online survey, the team asked a series of questions about mental health including how often the participant had experienced a speciﬁed symptom (e.g. feeling down, depressed or anxious) over the past weeks.
Using this uniquely large and detailed dataset, the research team was able to identify how the pandemic has impacted multiple aspects of mental health and daily life and relate them to age, sex, handedness, ethnicity, employment status, ﬁrst language, country of residence, education level, earnings, medical conditions, personality and psychiatric traits.
Study Lead Dr Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Science at Imperial College London, and Associate Member of the UK Dementia Research Institute, said:
“It’s clear to see that nearly everyone’s everyday life, mental health and outlook has been profoundly affected by this pandemic and the associated lockdowns, but in very different ways. This unique study helps us go beyond average effects in order to quantify this individual impact and identify where our most vulnerable lie in society.
"Although anxiety levels increased across all ages, older people were disproportionately affected, also showing higher levels of depression, and getting fewer hours of sleep. There are multiple reasons why this may be the case including isolation from loved ones and the worries that come with being the most at risk to the virus. I believe this older demographic has not received enough attention and must be prioritised for care and mental health interventions, especially those who are clinically vulnerable and may feel left behind as we move out of lockdown.
"We know that healthcare workers also experience disproportionate psychological effects of outbreaks such as Covid-19. Their wellbeing is especially crucial, not only during the pandemic, but also beyond with an escalating backlog. Unsurprisingly people living with their parents or with small children also indicate greater conflicts at home which can affect our mental health over time.
"The surveys also revealed that a surprising proportion of people experienced substantial positives from the first lockdown including a greater sense of community, improved environment, connection with loved ones, reduced commute times and more spare time for family and pursuits.
"There are things that we can learn from people’s positive experiences that can help us to improve our lives as we emerge from the pandemic. Notably, access to pleasant outdoor space was also very important in the perception of the pandemic, relating positively to people feeling less stressed and tired, having fewer health concerns and a more positive outlook. This data not only adds to growing evidence of the benefits of green space to mental health, but also shows that this is important in resilience against negatives of the pandemic.”
The study team will re-contact survey respondents six and twelve months later to see how people have adapted to the prolonged pandemic conditions and how they are coping as lockdown measures ease. They will also be examining data collected from children under 16 to assess the mental health impact for this age group.
Data collected includes reports from more than 50,000 people sharing the main positives and negatives of the pandemic, their most useful coping strategies and views on the pandemic’s origins and government response. The researchers plan to publish further work applying artificial intelligence (AI) methods to gain new insights from this data, to understand what can help in future pandemics and support recovery now.
This study is a collaboration between researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, the University of Chicago, the University of Southampton, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and Southern Health NHS Foundation Trusts.