Pandemic may have triggered second ‘midlife crisis’ in mental health for your generation

Your generation experienced their highest-ever levels of mental ill health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to evidence from NCDS and two other British cohort studies.

Often referred to as the ‘midlife crisis’, psychological distress is known to peak in middle age, improving again as people get older. Your generation already experienced this peak in mental ill-health between the ages of 46 and 50. However, psychological distress levels rose to new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Throughout your adult lives, we have asked you questions about how you feel, which can gauge whether you’re showing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

You also reported on your mental health at three points during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: in May 2020, September/October 2020, and February/March 2021.

We’ve asked the 1946 and 1970 cohorts the same sorts of questions over the years.

How did the pandemic impact different generations?

Researchers from UCL and King’s College London found that your generation experienced higher levels of psychological distress during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, on average, than they had ever experienced in adulthood. These levels surpassed the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ peak seen in people’s mid-40s to early 50s.

The 1970 cohort’s experience during the pandemic was similar to yours. However, for the 1946 cohort, who were in their mid-70s at the time, mental health worsened but not to the point of a second mid-life crisis.

Across all the generations, when we asked about the difficulties posed by the pandemic, a common theme was missing friends and family.

One NCDS study member wrote:

“Missing out seeing the grandchildren growing… although we see them on facetime etc that is not the same as being able to give them a cuddle and play with them. I know full well how quickly time passes and these are times that we won’t get back.” (Male, age 62)

Worries about loved ones were another common theme. For example:

“We worry about our daughter who is caring for [her child] during the day and working from home late into the night. We feel helpless to relieve her tiredness.” (Female, age 62).

“My mother is [in her late 80s] and is really struggling with being isolated. [She] finds it hard to understand why I can’t spend time with her.” (Male, age 62).

Impacts on mental health worse for women 

Women struggled more than men with their mental health across all age groups, widening the already substantial gender inequalities in mental health that existed before the pandemic.

The researchers suggested this may have been because women took on a larger share of the unpaid family caring responsibilities during the pandemic. Other research has shown that domestic and gender-based violence increased during the lockdowns. Among your generation, women’s mental health was also negatively affected by the rising collective death toll of the pandemic.

Why this research matters 

Anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of disease worldwide. For some people, added distress could lead to chronic mental ill health or other related health difficulties, which would increase pressure on the NHS.

This research was covered in The Guardian: Pandemic triggered ‘second midlife crisis’ among over-50s, study finds and ‘I struggled to cope’: over-50s in UK describe Covid’s toll on mental health.

Read the full paper 

Long-term psychological distress trajectories and the COVID-19 pandemic in three British birth cohorts: A multi-cohort study by Darío Moreno-Agostino et al. was published in the scientific journal?PLOS Medicine in April 2023.