Are warnings of a mental health ‘pandemic’ accurate? Analysing official data

The Office for National Statistics has published two pieces of analysis providing early insights into the toll of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health.

06/05/21

Are warnings of a mental health ‘pandemic’ accurate? Analysing official data

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published two new pieces of analysis looking at the effect of the last year’s events on people’s personal well-being and mental health.

The authors of the analyses, looking at self-reported depression in adults during the early 2021 lockdown and experimental analysis of the number of depression diagnoses by GPs, paints a picture of a “rising toll on mental health”.

The figures estimate that more than one in five (21%) adults say they have experienced some form of depression during the coronavirus pandemic, approximately double the number of those reporting the same before the pandemic.

The authors also say that because the pandemic has affected the way people access services, many people are not necessarily seeking medical help for their mental health with GP-diagnosed cases of adult depression falling at the start of the pandemic.

This follows a similar downward trend for many other non-COVID-19 conditions, which the authors say may be due to some people being reluctant to consult GPs during this time, or due to changes in the ways GP appointments were being managed during this period.

The data shows there has been a 30% decrease in all diagnoses by GPs in England between 23 March and 31 August 2020, with the number of depression diagnoses falling by 24%.

The decrease was higher among men (27% decrease) than women (21% decrease) and the largest fall in depression diagnoses was among those aged 45 to 54 years, which saw a fall of more than 30%.

However, despite falling total numbers of diagnoses of depression, cases of adult depression made up a larger proportion of overall diagnoses. As a percentage of all diagnoses, depression in adults rose by 1.3% compared to the corresponding 2019 period, making up 15.6% of all diagnoses in that time.

The data also suggested some racial inequality in the spread of decreases, with those identifying as ‘White’ seeing the biggest drop (24%) while those identifying as ‘Indian’ saw the smallest drop (14%).

The analysis, which linked existing statistics and traditional surveys with new NHS Digital datasets, also found a reduction in the number of adults who sought help from Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) – a service for people to seek help for common mental health problems like anxiety and depression – during the early months of the pandemic.

In April 2020, the number of new referrals to IAPT decreased by 57%, compared to the previous year. In November 2020, the number of referrals had decreased by 9%, compared to the previous year.

New data from 25,000 adults taking part in an ONS survey in the early months of 2021 suggest that these worrying trends have continued.

Levels of self-reported depression were highest for young adults and women with over 4 in 10 (43%) women aged 16 to 29 years experiencing depressive symptoms, compared with 26% of men of the same age.

Disabled (39%) and clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) adults (31%) were more likely to experience some form of depression than non-disabled (13%) and non-CEV adults (20%).

A higher proportion of adults renting their home experienced some form of depression (31%) when compared with adults who own their home outright (13%). Almost 3 in 10 (28%) adults living in the most deprived areas of England experienced depressive symptoms; compared with just under 2 in 10 (17%) adults in the least deprived areas.

Writing in a blog for the ONS, authors Tim Vizard, Head of Policy, Evidence and Analysis Team and Theodore Joloza, Head of Health Statistics Transformation, expressed concern over the trends.

“Our analysis paints a picture of a rising toll on mental health, with some people not necessarily accessing medical help, particularly during the start of the pandemic.

“As we move into the next stages of the roadmap out of lockdown, it is going to be important to look out for our own and each other’s mental health and well-being.”

View the statistics for ‘Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: January to March 2021’: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/coronavirusanddepressioninadultsgreatbritain/januarytomarch2021

View the statistics for ‘Coronavirus and GP diagnosed depression in England: 2020’: https://www.ons.gov.uk/releases/coronavirusandgpdiagnoseddepressioninengland2020

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