Why COVID depression may not have passed the peak

06 September 2020


COVID-19 has nearly doubled depression rates in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. In June 2020, almost one in five people in Britain (19.2%) experienced symptoms of depression – compared with 9.7% in June 2019.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the elderly who came off worst, but the young, with 31% of 16-39-year-olds experiencing moderate to severe depression symptoms – nearly three times the pre-COVID rate of 10.9%.

Women suffered disproportionately too, with 23.3% having moderate or severe symptoms of depression this year versus 11.9% last year, while men fared somewhat better – although their 14.9% was still double last year’s 7.4%.

Figures from Mind are even more depressing: 63% of women and 51% of men say their mental health has worsened during lockdown.

While men may prefer to chalk this imbalance up to superior mental toughness, the disproportionate burden of childcare and homeschooling that’s fallen on women probably has something to do with it, together with more women than men losing their jobs.

Disabled Britons, those who aren’t working, and those with fewer savings are also experiencing more than their fair share of depression.

However, our own poll results are a little more cheerful: although 47% of you say COVID has had a negative effect on your mental health, 31% claim it’s had no effect, and a surprising 19% say it’s actually had a positive effect.

Reasons for COVID cheer may be as varied as the people experiencing them. Some people have discovered that they enjoy working from home. Some have used the time to develop themselves, or to reflect on their lives and change things that weren't working. Those who are introverted or suffer from social anxiety or sensory overload may feel relieved of the pressure to socialise in person. Others may have actually formed closer community bonds and found a new sense of purpose through mutual aid efforts.

There's also the fact that some of the help available during COVID, such as money grants and community support, was needed already. Some people who were isolated or struggling to get their needs met before the pandemic hit may have felt more supported recently.

However, despite the rise in depression, one form of support that’s not been readily available is mental health treatment. The NHS reported that mental health referrals were down 30-40% during the peak of the pandemic, and are now rebounding to above average. Doctors are concerned about being swamped by new referrals, on top of a backlog of existing referrals that were on hold during lockdown.

The relaxing of lockdown might have other counterintuitive effects on Britain’s mental health too. As support measures like furlough, increased sick pay, and emergency housing wind down, those who were relying on them may face a mental health crisis.

COVID has also worsened existing inequalities: people who were at a disadvantage before are likely to be at a double disadvantage now. And for those who’ve lost jobs, homes, savings, or relationships, the impacts of the pandemic won’t go away overnight.

So to the 19% of you who are feeling better: spread that happiness around you. Britain needs it.