Sad, anxious, lonely – how the pandemic got us talking about mental health

Research commissioned by Future Care Capital provides real-time log of experiences of mental health during the first wave of the pandemic.

Research commissioned by Future Care Capital provides real-time log of experiences of mental health during the first wave of the pandemic.

Mental health and the pandemic.
30th September 2020 about a 5 minute read

(30 September 2020) Analysis of social media data provides insight into the lived experience of mental health during the first wave of the pandemic and lockdown in the UK. Two in five (42%) of the social media posts analysed contain words such as “anxiety”, “frustrated”, “sad”, “angry”, “scared” “bored”, “guilty”, or “worried”. (See Fig 1 below)

The study conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Future Care Capital used a combination of machine-led analysis, manual coding, statistical modelling and qualitative investigation to analyse some 27,497 social media posts between 1 February and 31 June 2020. It has implications for the communication of public health as the UK prepares for a second wave of the pandemic.

In almost two in five (39%) of the posts analysed, social media users described feelings of sadness, anxiety, stress and anger (see Figure 2 below), with posts expressing these feelings particularly likely to have originated from the social media accounts of individuals identifying themselves as female (59%). A range of issues were discussed in relation to mental health. These included the impact of remote working, home schooling, uncertainty over jobs, loneliness and lack of social interaction, concern over one’s own health and the welfare of loved ones.

Direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19

Many social media users described how fear of them or their loved ones contracting coronavirus had caused them to experience stress and anxiety, sometimes for the first time. In other cases, social media users described how the impact of lockdown restrictions rather than COVID-19 per se that had been the cause. For example, students and those who had been furloughed, talked about the impact of studies cut short or not working.

Social media provides some insight into the groups of people who may have been disproportionately affected by mental health issues – including concern among social media users for those who live alone, those who have difficult home lives or are at risk of abuse; children, pregnant women and new parents; and those with existing health conditions or learning disabilities.

Physical health

The study also provides a picture of the physical health of social media users during the pandemic. Discussions about exercise and efforts to keep fit accounted for the largest proportion of conversation and were often driven by key policy announcements related to restrictions on exercise during lockdown. High-profile initiatives like virtual PE lessons with Joe Wicks and the ‘Couch to 5k’ challenge also gained traction.  (See Figure 3 below)

Spikes in other topics were also event driven, either in reaction to media commentary or the publication of studies which discussed the risk factors associated with catching or suffering badly from COVID-19.

Positive spirit

The analysis also points to the positive impact of social media. It reveals how people made concerted efforts online to keep spirits high, showing sympathy for others, encouraging people to keep in touch and care for each other and providing motivation and positivity. This spirit was evident in a quarter (24%) of posts analysed through the topic model.

Social media was also used to promote offers of help and support and top tips. For example, the largest group of posts that specifically mentioned loneliness focused on how to support people by sharing tips to reduce feelings of loneliness and providing information about online services.

Implications for public health communication

The data highlights the difficulty faced by the Government in responding to the pandemic since many policy interventions undertaken, such as restricting travel and socialising, have a potential impact on mental health and in some cases, the options available offer a lose-lose situation. This study suggests that there could have been an opportunity to encourage improved physical health as part of the Government’s strategy to help fight COVID-19, given the evidence that obesity is a risk factor for worse health outcomes from coronavirus.

Annemarie Naylor MBE, FCC’s Director of Policy and Strategy said:

“None of us can be certain whether or when the ongoing public health emergency, with its equally serious implications for the economy, might be alleviated – let alone, come to an end. For now, we are having to learn to ‘live with the Virus’.

“In addition to the predictable anxiety expressed around the peak of the pandemic’s first wave, we can clearly discern a ‘pulling together’ of people who contribute to online communities – considerable efforts to provide advice and support as well as to articulate sympathy where appropriate. In this, we can perhaps see our inherently social selves making use of technology to reach out and connect with one another, despite the restrictions applied to physical interactions. It does, nonetheless, raise serious questions about the impact of the digital divide upon those excluded from participation in such virtual meeting spaces.”

Steven Ginnis, Research Director at Ipsos MORI said:

“Social media data re-emphasises the challenges in supporting mental and physical health during the pandemic. For example, users point to a wide variety of reasons for feeling anxious, stressed or frustrated; many of which conflict with each other. Furthermore, posts on social media relating to exercise and physical health often emphasise the need for the public to adhere to restrictions of movement over the need to keep well. Yet, the findings also point to an opportunity to galvanise and support each other; using social media platforms to raise awareness of these issues and provide help and support to improve our wellbeing.

Communicating Public Health: Understanding mental and physical health among social media users during lockdown is the fourth report in a series by Future Care Capital and is available to download.

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