Generational inequalities in mental health worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mental health problems like anxiety and depression were more common among younger people before the pandemic — but the difference between your generation and those younger than you got even bigger during lockdowns, according to research based on NCDS and four other UK longitudinal studies.

If you are struggling with your mental health

Call Samaritans for free at 116 123. You can call the Samaritans helpline about anything that’s upsetting you. They are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The charity Mind also has a useful list of other mental health helplines on their website.

What we asked you

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic you completed three online surveys, in May 2020, September/October 2020 and February/March 2021, alongside adults taking part in four other cohort studies. At each survey, we asked a series of questions about how you were feeling, which can gauge whether you’re showing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What the researchers found

Across generations, more people showed signs of anxiety and depression during the first year of the pandemic than we would have expected. However, the youngest generations seemed to be the worst affected.

Right from the outset of the pandemic, those in their late teens and early 20s seemed to be struggling most with anxiety and depression, even after accounting for the fact that mental health problems were more common among younger adults prior to COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, younger generations also reported feeling less satisfied with their lives than your generation, though the gap narrowed over the course of the first year.

But younger people felt consistently more depressed and lonelier than people your age, and their anxiety levels increased at a higher rate as lockdowns and restrictions went on.

Mental ill health more common among women and those struggling financially

Across all generations, women and those from less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to report feeling anxious, depressed, lonely or unsatisfied with their lives throughout the first year of the pandemic.

The gap between men and women was biggest in younger generations. However, people across generations from less advantaged backgrounds faced similar struggles with their mental health compared to their better-off peers.

Why this research matters

This research suggests that generational inequalities in mental health that existed before the pandemic may have been exacerbated.

Dr Darío Moreno-Agostino, lead author of the study, said: “To explain just how unexpected this was, if we assumed that the gap in mental ill health between younger and older people stayed the same over time, we wouldn’t have expected to see depression levels like those we found among the younger generations for another 22 years.”

It will be important to continue monitoring mental health among different groups, so that measures can be taken to support those most vulnerable.

Read the full paper

Generational, sex, and socioeconomic inequalities in mental and social wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic: prospective longitudinal observational study of five UK cohorts’ by Darío Moreno-Agostino et al. was published in Psychological Medicine in January 2023.