Report finds that one in five people feel anxious all the time and young people are particularly likely to be affected by the condition
“We can’t treat our way out of a mental health crisis; we need action which tackles the root causes of poor mental health including poverty, financial strain, bullying and discrimination. We need our governments to develop and deliver long-term mental health plans with a focus on prevention of poor mental health, including anxiety." Mark Rowley, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs this week, is anxiety – and a new report from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has found that one in five people (20%) feel anxious all or most of the time.
The report is based on an online survey conducted by Opinium in March 2023 of 6,000 adults aged 18+ to look at anxiety in the UK population. It found that nearly three-quarters of the population (73%) had felt anxious at least sometimes in the previous two weeks.
Some groups of people, it found, are more likely to be affected by anxiety than others. Nearly all young people aged 18-24 (86%) had felt anxious in the previous two weeks. For over half (58%) this had stopped them undertaking day-to-day activities. Other groups particularly affected by anxiety included single parents, carers and those with a long-term physical health condition.
The report says there were several factors that might explain the higher prevalence of anxiety among younger people. “Increased academic or job stress and pressures could be impacting on their mental health,” it says. In a separate study of college students, the MHF found that “those experiencing food insecurity were also experiencing high levels of depression and low levels of wellbeing.” In addition, the report says, “social media may add to their stress as they compare their experiences to those of others, feel pressure to present a perfect image online, and/or be a victim of cyberbullying.”
Previous studies have found growing rates of mental illness among young people. One recent survey found that one in four 17-19-year olds had a probable mental disorder.
The most commonly reported cause of anxiety in the research (cited by 32% of people with anxiety) was difficulty in affording to pay bills. Those aged 35-64 years old were most anxious about finances. Other common causes included work (29%), physical health problems (26%) and loneliness (23%).
“Stigma and shame play a part in how people deal with their anxiety,” the report’s authors say. Nearly half the people surveyed were keeping their anxiety secret.
People surveyed were using a “variety of coping mechanisms” to manage their anxiety, the report says. It found that some of the more popular choices were healthy ones, including exercise, sleeping more, and connecting with friends and family. However, it adds that the survey “also had evidence of unhealthy coping strategies for example, excessive avoidance of trigger situations, increased consumption of alcohol, and smoking.”
The report states that social and environmental factors can contribute to anxiety. These include “childhood trauma, social isolation, negative life events, stress relating to work or education, physical or mental health problems, and social and societal pressures.” It says that gender also plays a part, with women “almost twice as likely to experience anxiety as men.”
The MHF is calling on policymakers to take action in five areas:
Mark Rowley, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said:
“We need governments across the UK to recognise and be honest about their roles in the causes of and solutions to high levels of anxiety.
“We can’t treat our way out of a mental health crisis; we need action which tackles the root causes of poor mental health including poverty, financial strain, bullying and discrimination. We need our governments to develop and deliver long-term mental health plans with a focus on prevention of poor mental health, including anxiety. They must ensure that all government departments from work and pensions to justice, transport to education, have a responsibility to ensure their policy decisions support good public mental health.”
It’s normal to feel some amount of anxiety – we all feel anxious some of the time about matters such as work or finances. But the survey suggests that some groups, including young people, are disproportionately experiencing anxiety. This supports other studies that have found growing rates of mental ill-health amongst young people. At the start of Mental Health Week, we support the Mental Health Foundation’s call for the government and policymakers to focus on tackling the causes of mental ill-health, such as poverty and social isolation.