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Why the coronavirus mental health crisis may not have peaked

Nearly one in five people in the UK experienced some form of depression in June, up by 10 per cent the previous year. 

By Nicu Calcea

Depression rates have nearly doubled in the UK as the Covid-19 lockdown takes a heavy toll on the nation’s mental health. 

Nearly one in five Britons (19.2 per cent) experienced some form of depression in June, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. That was up from 9.7 per cent this time last year.

Younger adults were particularly affected, with almost one in three (31 per cent) of those aged 16-39 saying they had experienced moderate or severe depressive symptoms this June. That was nearly triple the pre-pandemic rate of 10.9 per cent.

Almost one in four women (23.3 per cent) were experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms, compared to 11.9 per cent before the lockdown. Among men the rate rose from 7.4 per cent to 14.9 per cent.

Brits with fewer savings, those who weren’t working and those with disabilities were also disproportionately likely to have experienced depression.

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“It’s worrying to see an increase in the number of people experiencing depression,” said Sophie Corlett, director of external relations at mental health charity Mind. 

“Today’s figures also show how the pandemic has affected people, especially women, who were previously well and are now experiencing depressive symptoms for the first time. As more and more people ask for support for their mental health, well-resourced timely treatment must be available for anyone who needs it.”

The ONS figures are in line with an earlier study which found that 27.3 per cent of people in the UK were experiencing significant levels of mental distress in April, up from 18.9 per cent in 2018-2019.

That study also found that women – as well those who earned less, and younger adults – were more likely to suffer poor mental health during the pandemic.

A Mind survey similarly found that 63 per cent of women said their mental health had deteriorated under lockdown, compared to 51 per cent of men.

Despite causing a rise in mental health problems, the lockdown has also meant restricted access to treatment. The number of mental health referrals has dropped by 30-40 per cent during the peak of the crisis, an NHS Confederation report  revealed.

Since some lockdown restrictions have been lifted, some providers of mental health support services are currently reporting an increase in referrals to above-average levels.

Doctors now fear services will be strained by a backlog of referrals that were temporarily paused – as well as a surge of new referrals from people needing support for the first time.

While the peak of first-wave Covid-19 cases may have passed, the effect on Britain’s mental health is likely to linger.

Experts say changes in housing, employment, finances and personal relationships will all have an impact – even as restrictions are lifted.

Corlett added: “Now many emergency measures introduced by government – such as furlough, emergency housing, and better statutory sick pay – have stopped or are winding down, we’re concerned even more people will fall through the gaps.”

The pandemic has exacerbated differences in local economies, food insecurity, access to green spaces and many other aspects of life, all of which can have a significant impact on mental health.

Whether lifting some restrictions will mean a return to happier lives or whether the mental health crisis is just starting is yet to be seen.