The study found that people in their 50s and 60s experienced higher level of mental distress during the pandemic than they had experienced before
“Those mental health problems are closely linked to numerous physical health problems – right up to and including increased morbidity. The fact that we are observing an unexpected new peak of the very mental health problems that can lead to these long-term trajectories is deeply concerning.” Dr Darío Moreno-Agostino, research fellow, King's College London
The mental health impact of the pandemic prompted a “second midlife crisis” in the over-50s, a new King’s College London study has found.
The study, based on data collected over four decades from more than 16,000 British-born adults, found that just before the start of the second national lockdown, people born in 1958 and 1970 were experiencing higher levels of psychological distress, on average, than they had ever experienced in adulthood before. This distress surpassed previous peaks in their early 40s.
It also found that people born in 1946 had similar levels of psychological distress to their previous midlife peak in their early 50s.
In all age groups, this peak of anxiety during the first year of the pandemic was higher for women than men.
Dr Darío Moreno-Agostino, lead author of the report, said that most of the studies analysed by the researchers attributed the sex differential to a “totally different share of the domestic and caring responsibilities during lockdown.” He added: “An increase in gender-based violence and abuse, as well as additional financial constraints, are also suggested because there’s evidence showing that women were in more precarious situations than men: for instance, from the work point of view, more care workers – typically women – were exposed to more difficulties than other professions.”
The study’s authors suggest that this mental health crisis may and exacerbate the onset of physical health difficulties. “Those mental health problems are closely linked to numerous physical health problems – right up to and including increased morbidity,” said Moreno-Agostino. “The fact that we are observing an unexpected new peak of the very mental health problems that can lead to these long-term trajectories is deeply concerning.”
Speaking to the Guardian, one woman, 61-year old Tina Flintham, 61, said that during the pandemic she experienced high levels of anxiety, especially as she had elderly parents in poor health. “Every morning I would wake up stressed, wondering if I, my partner or parents would get Covid or die,” she said. “A very close friend’s husband died with Covid [early on] – it really brought home how bad it was.”
Another man interviewed by the Guardian, Mark Dawes, 60, lost his father on the second day of lockdown. “I had to deal with the grief alone – even the funeral had to be fully virtual as it was not possible to travel,” he said. “Living alone was very isolating and all social life was stopped – and relying on public transport meant I could not even travel to go walking in the nearby countryside.”
While he had experienced psychologically challenging periods before, this time, “the isolation felt very different”. “It all ground to a halt. Then you had the pandemic itself, which was pretty scary when it started off. It was a blur of days with no events in them. I was living, but not really living.”
The question of whether the pandemic worsened people’s mental health has been hotly debated in recent months. In March, a review of research by McGill University researchers in Canada found that the mental health impact of Covid-19 was relatively small. Moreno-Agostino disputed these findings, warning that McGill’s “worldwide” approach could not accurately assess the impact of the pandemic on individual groups such as children, women and people with low incomes or pre-existing mental health problems in specific countries.
Even the McGill research acknowledged that women had experienced worsening anxiety, depression or general mental health symptoms during the pandemic. The researchers suggested the causes included juggling more family responsibilities, careers in health or social care, and domestic abuse.
This study from King’s College London researchers is interesting because it appears to contradict the findings of the well-publicised study by McGill University last month. The reasons for the discrepancy aren’t easy to fathom, but one likely explanation is that the McGill research looked at a wide range of studies from across the world, perhaps smoothing out some of the differences. The King’s study highlighted the mental health impact on a particular demographic – those born between 1958 and 1970 – and noted that women in that age group were especially badly hit. We have heard a lot in the past year about the growth in mental health problems among young people, but perhaps it is time to look more closely at how older people have been affected – and at whether the effect is ongoing or stopped when the pandemic ended.