A Nation in Trouble: Rising Levels of Severe Distress since Pandemic

New Study reveals alarming increase in mental health crisis among young adults in England.

The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London, in collaboration with University College London (UCL) and the SPECTRUM Consortium, has released ground-breaking research shedding light on the rising levels of severe distress experienced by individuals in England since the onset of the pandemic. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, unveils a concerning trend of deteriorating mental health across all age groups, particularly affecting young adults aged 18‒24.

The comprehensive study analysed data from 51,861 adults collected between April 2020 and December 2022 as part of the Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit study. Participants were asked to report the frequency of negative feelings such as worthlessness, hopelessness, and restlessness experienced within the past 30 days. The responses were then evaluated using established cut-offs, classifying distress levels from none, minimal to severe.

The research findings reveal a steady increase in the number of people reporting severe distress, rising from 5.7% to 8.3% during the study period. Notably, while individuals reporting less severe distress experienced fluctuations in their levels, those reporting the most severe distress consistently rose without decline. The most significant surge was observed among young adults aged 18‒24, with rates increasing from 13.6% in December 2021 to 20.2% in December 2022.

The study highlighted the impact of socioeconomic factors on mental health. Participants from low-income backgrounds demonstrated a sharp increase in reports of severe distress, which researchers attribute to the cost-of-living crisis. A survey conducted in July 2022 indicated that individuals living in the most deprived areas of England had to reduce spending on food and essentials at a higher rate (42%) compared to those in more affluent areas (27%).

"The last three years have seen an unprecedented series of events that can be seen to be contributing to a worsening in people's mental health; a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and a healthcare crisis. Our study shows that England's wellbeing is steadily getting worse. The number of people reporting severe distress is growing in all age groups from all economic backgrounds – only the over 65s appear to be avoiding this."

"The high burden of mental health problems in England is not necessarily a new concern, but recent events appear to have exacerbated the problem and caused existing inequalities in mental health to deepen. Focused action is urgently needed to tackle the causes of poor mental health in the population and provide support to those who need it."  

This research was supported by Cancer Research UK and the UK Prevention Research Partnership SPECTRUM Consortium (MR/S037519/1).  The UKPRP is funded by the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Health and Social Care Research and Development Division (Welsh Government), Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health Research, Natural Environment Research Council, Public Health Agency (Northern Ireland), The Health Foundation and Wellcome..

Read full publication at: Trends in Psychological Distress Among Adults in England, 2020-2022 | Psychiatry and Behavioral Health | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network