Mental health problems like anxiety and depression were more common among younger generations before the COVID-19 outbreak — but the gap between young and old became even wider during the pandemic, according to new research based on five UK longitudinal studies.
Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Centre for Society and Mental Health (King’s College London) examined information from 26,772 people living across the UK, who are being followed by five different birth cohort studies: the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (born in 1946); the National Child Development Study (born in 1958); the 1970 British Cohort Study (born in 1970); Next Steps (born in 1989-1990); and the Millennium Cohort Study (born in 2000-2002). The study members were asked how often they experienced common symptoms of depression and anxiety at three different points during the first year of the pandemic: May 2020, September/October 2020, and February/March 2021.
Symptoms of depression in the first months of the pandemic were higher than anticipated among adults in their late teens and early twenties, even considering the generational differences in mental ill health before the pandemic. Dr Darío Moreno-Agostino, lead author of the study, said: “To explain just how unexpected this was, if we assumed that the gap in mental ill health between younger and older people stayed the same over time, we wouldn’t have expected to see depression levels like those we found among the younger generations for another 22 years.”
The researchers also found that generational differences in anxiety levels expanded during the first year of the pandemic. While overall symptoms of depression and anxiety rose across all generations during the first year of the pandemic, it was the more substantial increase in anxiety levels among younger adults that really widened the generational gap.
The researchers took into account other factors that might contribute to inequalities between generations, including the study members’ prior health and socioeconomic circumstances, and their psychological distress and life satisfaction before the onset of the pandemic.
Across generations, women, and people experiencing financial difficulties were particularly vulnerable to mental health problems during the first year of the pandemic.
‘Generational, sex, and socioeconomic inequalities in mental and social wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic: prospective longitudinal observational study of five UK cohorts’ by Darío Moreno-Agostino et al. was published in Psychological Medicine in January 2023.