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Has the COVID-19 pandemic widened the mental health gap in the UK?

In a recent study published in BMC Public Health, Researchers are investigating the various impacts of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on mental health and inequalities within the UK adult population.

Study: Inequalities and mental health during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK: a mixed methods exploration. Image Credit: Svetlana Khutornaya/


Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, important mental health implications have emerged amid the pandemic’s enormous impacts on physical health.

The pandemic has increased existing mental health inequalities in the UK, intensifying distress and loneliness. Vulnerable groups with pre-existing mental health problems have experienced significant deterioration during lockdowns, while the economic fallout has unequally affected people on lower incomes.

More research is essential to address the multifaceted and nuanced mental health impacts and growing inequalities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. These studies should focus on prevention, early intervention, and the development of tailored solutions for different population groups experiencing varying impacts, especially in the context of evolving socioeconomic disparities and deteriorating mental health indicators.

About the study

The current study used a design incorporating online surveys and focus group discussions (FGDs) aimed at understanding the depth, nature and complexities of mental health experiences during the pandemic.

The focus groups were meticulously crafted to elucidate perceptions around inequalities that were not captured by the quantitative survey data. More specifically, the focus groups focused on various elements such as disparities in experiences of inequality, socioeconomic contrasts, and resilience and coping mechanisms in mental health. This approach facilitated deep exploration of individual viewpoints and accelerated policy responses to developing problems.

Study participants participated through intermediary organizations and received detailed information before consenting to participate. Discussions were conducted virtually, and the resulting findings were scrupulously transcribed and examined through thematic analyzes supervised by specialists in public mental health and qualitative research.

Qualitative insights were harmonized with quantitative survey results to provide an in-depth understanding of how the pandemic affected mental health among various demographic segments within the UK. In essence, the study offered an integrated perspective on the multifaceted impacts of the pandemic on mental health. , highlighting the value of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to addressing the experiences of diverse populations.

Study findings

Exploring socioeconomic inequalities during the pandemic, three waves of surveys and focus groups revealed profound mental health impacts across diverse demographic segments.

The second wave, conducted in April 2020, identified various concerns, such as financial worries and job loss, among 2,221 participants, demonstrating the detrimental effects of socioeconomic inequalities on mental well-being. The fourth wave in June 2020 illustrated divergent mental health experiences among 4,382 participants as lockdown measures were eased, with 53% experiencing anxiety.

The study continued with the sixth wave in August 2020, focusing on resilience and coping strategies among 4,584 participants. Coping experiences included access to nature and family connections, which is often described as cathartic for most people. A corresponding focus group on resilience and coping strategies revealed different levels of resilience among participants.

Focus groups universally amplified the impact of the pandemic on existing inequalities, with notable pressure on the self-employed, small businesses and young people. Discussions were plagued by concerns about the potential exacerbation of inequalities due to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU), increasing financial insecurities and feelings of helplessness. The increase in first-time callers to mental health support lines underlined the widespread emotional impact of the pandemic and likely reflects a population-level mental health crisis.

Participants unanimously highlighted the urgent need for more funding to address the social determinants of health and well-being. The frequent lack of clarity and consistency in information sharing and government communication across the UK was also a major concern, adding stress and confusion to an already tense environment.

Various experiences and concerns emerged regarding the reopening of society, with pressures to resume social interactions particularly deep among ethnic minorities and older adults, who expressed fears of less protection and greater vulnerability after lockdown. Some children expressed a preference for online education and concerns were raised about their adaptation to conventional schooling.

Nature and outdoor activities emerged as primary coping mechanisms, offering comfort and mental health support during lockdowns. The benefits of working from home were also widely discussed, with an emphasis on reducing the financial and emotional strain it entailed; however, potential pressures from premature social interactions were recognized as stress points.

Online and offline connections with family, friends, and the community were considered essential for emotional stability. However, concerns about high-risk social interactions and potential recklessness of others persisted.

The importance of community connection and mutual support groups was highlighted as a countermeasure to feelings of helplessness and overwhelm, thus serving as a beacon of hope to confront the many challenges of the times.

Magazine reference:

  • Lombardo, C., Guo, L., Salomón, S. et al. (2023). Inequalities and mental health during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK: a mixed methods exploration. BMC Public Health. doi:10.1186/s12889-023-16523-9

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