As we enter the second year of the pandemic, one thing is clear: Covid-19 has put an enormous strain on mental health. The loss of loved ones, illness and the fear of illness, social restrictions and economic insecurity have all taken their toll on our psychological wellbeing.
In the UK, a general measure of mental health fell by 8% as result of the onset of Covid-19, according to our new IFS study published in the World Happiness Report. This may not sound like much, but it is a huge drop in mental health terms: roughly equivalent to the pre-pandemic difference in mental health between the richest and poorest 20% of people.
Our mental health improved over the summer months but remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels. By September 2020, when restrictions were relatively relaxed, general mental health was still 2% lower than it would have been in the absence of the pandemic.
As with so many aspects of the pandemic, the impacts have not been evenly felt. Women, who already had lower levels of mental health before Covid-19 hit, experienced much larger deteriorations. Young women (aged 16-24) saw a decline in mental health in April 2020 that was nearly three times the population average. And negative impacts have been most persistent among elderly women (aged 65 and over), who saw a much more limited recovery over the summer months than other groups.
The deterioration in mental health as a result of Covid-19 comes on top of a longer-run decline in mental health in the UK, which has taken place since at least the early 2000s. Before the pandemic hit, there was already considerable concern over increased levels of anxiety, depression and other disorders – especially among women and young people – and the resulting pressures on mental health services. The pandemic has further increased demand for mental health support, while severely disrupting the provision of services.
“The pandemic has further increased demand for mental health support, while severely disrupting the provision of services.”
The effects on our mental health are likely to endure long after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Some people will carry lasting traumas from the illness or the loss of loved ones. Some, who were unable to access treatment in a timely way during the pandemic, will suffer worse mental health as a result.
The economic fallout from the pandemic, which has so far been held back by the furlough and other support schemes, will further worsen mental health when these schemes are unwound. Unemployment in particular is known to cause severe and sustained damage to mental health. We have already seen a rise in unemployment during the pandemic, and the OBR forecasts that half a million more people will lose their jobs by the end of this year.
What can the government do? First, investment is needed to deal with the backlog in mental health services and the additional demand caused by the pandemic. But disappointingly, the Budget did not provide any additional funds to deal with the aftermath of Covid-19 beyond 2021 – to the NHS, or indeed any other department.
“Disappointingly, the Budget did not provide any additional funds to deal with the aftermath of Covid-19 beyond 2021.”
Second, the government must recognise that preventing mass layoffs as the furlough is unwound is not only an economic imperative, it is also a mental health imperative. Women and young people, who already have the lowest levels of mental health, are most likely to work in sectors that have been badly hit. A rise in unemployment among these groups would further widen mental health inequalities.
Finally, the government should seek to provide certainty, as much as possible in these uncertain times. We know that delays to extend the furlough until the eleventh hour were bad for mental health: anxiety about finances increased in the weeks leading up to its planned end in October 2020, only to fall again when the scheme was extended. The £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit, which was due to expire in April 2021, was not extended until March – and is set for another cliff-edge reduction in October, when pressures will no doubt mount to extend it again. More clarity over policy timelines would prevent unnecessary strains on mental health.
As we come out of lockdown and start to rebuild, the nation’s health must be a priority for the government. Otherwise, it risks becoming yet another casualty of the pandemic.
Xiaowei Xu works in the Income, Work and Welfare sector at the IFS