Psychological distress in UK higher than other countries in the midst of the pandemic
The UK had the highest levels of psychological distress in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other economically developed nations, according to new research by London South Bank University (LSBU) in partnership with Imperial College Business School and Kingston University.
The researchers surveyed over 5,000 people in representative samples from the UK, China, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United States of America (USA) in March 2021.
Pre-pandemic, around 20% of these countries’ populations would be expected to experience ‘moderate to severe psychological distress (anxiety and depression)’. This includes symptoms such as disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating and relaxing, and worrisome thoughts.
The survey found significant differences between the six countries in March 2021 including:
- 47% of UK respondents suffering from ‘moderate to severe psychological distress’
- 42% of Italian respondents suffering from ‘moderate to severe psychological distress’
- 40% of USA respondents suffering from ‘moderate to severe psychological distress’
- 19% of Chinese respondents suffering from ‘moderate to severe psychological distress’.
The percentage of those reporting moderate to severe psychological distress averaged 33% across the six countries.
Marcantonio Spada, Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health and Dean of the School of Applied Sciences at LSBU, said: “Our study clearly shows that psychological distress was rife, particularly in the UK, Italy and the USA, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and it raises important questions as to what could have been done better to protect people’s mental health. The threat of the virus and the focus on fear-centred messaging inevitably affected people’s psychology. Extensive lockdowns in the UK, Italy and parts of the USA led to social isolation and economic hardship which further exacerbated distress.”
Walter Distaso, Professor of Financial Econometrics at Imperial College Business School said: “Our research shows that at the height of the pandemic, levels of psychological distress were found to be much higher in young adults, women (of all ages), those with a university education, the unemployed and students. As a confirmation of their resilience, we found that women were more likely to report higher levels of stress and anxiety, but significantly less likely to struggle to carry out activities related to their professional, social and domestic life.”
Professor of Psychology and Mental Health Ana Nikčević, from Kingston University, said: “We believe our research results provide useful evidence to national governments on shaping appropriate measures of support for those groups most affected by the pandemic. Addressing the psychological consequences, which have been particularly devastating for some subgroups, must be made a priority as we start to exit the state of the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19.”
Psychological distress was measured using the Patient Health Questionnaire Anxiety and Depression Scale (PHQ- ADS; Kroenke et al., 2016). This self-report measure assesses the severity of generalised anxiety and depression symptoms. The combined PHQ-ADS is a reliable and valid composite measure with good psychometric properties (Kroenke et al., 2016).
The research was undertaken by Marcantonio Spada, Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health and Dean of the School of Applied Sciences at LSBU, in collaboration with Walter Distaso, Professor of Financial Econometrics at Imperial College Business School and Ana Nikčević, Professor of Psychology and Mental Health, Kingston University.