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Euphoria (2022)

You don’t have lucky girl syndrome, you’re just ‘severely distressed’

New research shows that ‘psychological distress’ has spiked among 18 to 24-year-olds since the pandemic

Feelings of “severe distress” have spiked in young adults in England since the pandemic, according to new research.

The study suggested reports of severe distress rose across all age groups, except for those over 65. The team surveyed more than 51,000 adults each month from April 2020, a week into the country’s first COVID lockdown, until December 2022. During this period, severe distress rose from 5.7 per cent to 8.3 per cent for those aged between 18 to 64.

Rising distress levels were particularly pronounced among young people. Between December 2021 and December 2022, distress for 18 to 24-year-olds rose from 13.6 per cent to 20.2 per cent. In other words, one in five young people experienced severe distress towards the end of 2022.

Participants from low-income backgrounds also saw sharp rises in reports of severe distress, which researchers suggest could largely be due to the cost of living crisis.

The researchers used a well-tested measure called the Kessler psychological distress scale to assess people’s wellbeing. Volunteers were asked how often in the past 30 days they had experienced various negative feelings such as ‘worthlessness’, ‘hopelessness’, ‘feeling nervous’ or ‘feeling so depressed nothing could cheer them up’. Scores above a particular threshold are considered indicative of “severe distress”.

Dr Leonie Brose, the study’s senior author from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience said that the dramatic rise in psychological distress across the majority of adults in England can likely be attributed to “an unprecedented series of events” that have happened in the last three years, including the pandemic, cost of living criss, and healthcare crisis. 

“Ensuring that these basic needs are met – financial security, stable housing, and access to health – may well help ease the pressure that people are feeling” – Dr Leonie Brose

“The last three years have seen society undergo a unique series of stressors that could be negatively impacting mental health in the way that we’re seeing,” she said. “Ensuring that these basic needs are met – financial security, stable housing, and access to health – may well help ease the pressure that people are feeling.”

Lead author Dr Sarah Jackson at UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care added that while the mental health crisis is not a “new concern”, the issue appears to have been exacerbated by recent events and caused “existing inequalities” to deepen. “Groups with particularly high rates of distress include young adults, women, non-binary people, people working in routine and manual occupations, and people who smoke,” she says. “Focused action is urgently needed to tackle the causes of poor mental health in the population and provide support to those who need it.”

Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation and Chair of the Mental Health and Smoking Partnership said that the findings clearly illustrate the extent of the mental health consequences of the pandemic and the need for urgent action. “If we don’t prevent high levels of psychological distress, particularly among young and disadvantaged groups, this will feed through into greater mental and physical ill-health, impacting productivity and requiring more support from already stretched services.”

“It is a false economy not to invest in public mental health approaches that build social capital and support those at risk,” he continued. “We urgently need to turn words about prevention into a dedicated strategy from government that drives greater investment into preventing mental health problems across our population.”

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