Poor mental health in lockdown most common among young women

7 August 2020

Young women are the most likely to have experienced high levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness in lockdown, compared to older adults, according to new research from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

The study, published today as a briefing paper, also found that young women (aged 30) have shown the biggest increase in mental health problems since they were previously assessed some years before compared to middle-aged (aged 50) and older adults (aged 62).

The research team at the UCL Institute of Education carried out a survey* in May 2020 of over 18,000 people born in 1958 (aged 62), 1970 (aged 50), 1989-90 (aged 30), and 2000-02 (aged 19), to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of four generations of people. The survey was completed by participants of nationally representative longitudinal cohort studies, which have been following their lives since childhood.

The researchers found that poor mental health in lockdown was most common among the 19-year-olds surveyed, followed by the 30-year-old millennials. Across all four age groups, women were more likely than men to experience mental health problems. Among 19-year-olds, just over one third of women and just under one quarter of men had symptoms of depression during lockdown in May, and 45% of women and 42% of men had felt lonely during this time.

These problems were also widespread among millennials, with 20% of women and 14% of men showing signs of depression and just over one third of women and one quarter of men experiencing loneliness. By comparison, 7% of 62-year-old men and 10% of 62-year-old women had symptoms of depression.

The team were also able to analyse the new lockdown survey data alongside survey information collected from participants several years before COVID-19, for all but the 19 year olds in the survey, in order to identify changes in the prevalence of mental ill-health among them. They found a significant increase in levels of poor mental health during lockdown among women aged 30 compared to when this group was last surveyed, at age 25.

Study co-author, Professor Emla Fitzsimons (UCL Institute of Education), said: “This change in mental health between age 25 and 30 will reflect change that may naturally occur at this stage of life, as well as change attributable to the pandemic, however this finding chimes with other studies which have also shown that young women have experienced the largest increase in mental health problems due to COVID-19.”

Among the older generations surveyed, there was little change in the prevalence of mental ill-health, compared to assessments taken in the same group several years before. However in a sub-set of 900 Baby Boomers (aged 62), for whom data immediately prior to the pandemic was available, there was a small decrease in reported levels of poor mental health during the pandemic compared to immediately before, although life satisfaction did appear to have dipped. The researchers found that the average life satisfaction score of these 62-year-olds dropped from 7.8 to 7.4 (out of 10) on the ONS scale between January to March 2020.

One limitation of the study design is that it includes adults at a set of specific ages, rather than at all ages. However the findings about high levels of difficulties especially among young women at the ages of 19 and 30 are likely to apply to young women in their twenties too.

Co-author of the briefing, Dr Praveetha Patalay (UCL Institute of Education), said: “Our findings clearly highlight high levels of difficulties being experienced by young people aged 19 and 30, especially young women. More needs to be done to support these age groups and limit the impact of the pandemic on their future health and wellbeing.”

Media coverage of this research

Daily Mail – Young women are the most likely to suffer depression, anxiety and loneliness in lockdown, study shows

The Telegraph (£) – Pandemic mental health: young women and millennials disproportionately affected

The Independent – Young women ‘most likely to suffer depression, anxiety and loneliness in lockdown’

Daily Mail (2) – Depression rates have DOUBLED since coronavirus hit Britain: 20% of adults were depressed in June — up from 9.7% before the pandemic, official data shows

TalkRadio – The Julia Hartley-Brewer Breakfast Show (from 10:15)


Kath Butler – UCL Institute of Education
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Notes to Editors

M Henderson, E Fitzsimons, G Ploubidis, M Richards and P Patalay, (2020). Mental health during lockdown – Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies is available to download.

*These initial findings are based on the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies which was developed and led by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), UCL Institute of Education, in collaboration with the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL (MRC LHA at UCL).

The briefings contain findings from participants in four of the five national longitudinal cohort studies that took part in the survey. These are:

the National Child Development Study (following people born across Great Britain in March 1958, since birth and up to age 62),

the 1970 British Cohort Study (following people born across Great Britain in April 1970 since birth and up to age 50),

Next Steps (following people born in 1989-90 who were in Year 9 in school in England in 2002-3, and who have been surveyed since age 13/14 and up to age 30)

the Millennium Cohort Study (following people born in 2000-02 in the UK since 9 months old, and up to age 19. The survey was issued to cohort members and their parents).

Two further surveys will be carried out to capture experiences during the pandemic in August and November 2020.

The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 QS World University Rankings. It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016. In 2014, the Institute secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, it was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff. In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe

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About the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS)

CLS is funded by The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. For more information visit www.ukri.org.

The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policy-makers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.

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