Even though severe disease and any direct neuropsychiatric effects caused by COVID-19 are uncommon in younger people, the psychological, social, educational, and economic effects of repeated stay-at-home orders, and the emerging concern about the long-term effects of the pandemic might be expected to exert a toll that could endure long after the pandemic has receded.
Despite the need for a rigorous, coordinated response from researchers, few studies on the mental health-related effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been longitudinal or incorporated unbiased measures of pre-pandemic risk factors. Even fewer studies include prospective markers of risk and resilience which are necessary to understand and mitigate the combined impacts of the pandemic, future lockdowns, and other societal responses.
A new study led by one of our PhD students, Anna Wiedemann, addressed several limitations within the current literature by examining both risk and resilience in a representative cohort of young adults first assessed in 2012–2013 when they were between 14-24 years old. They have been followed up various times thereafter as part of the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and University College London.
Surprisingly little research to date has focused on understanding what facilitates mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anna found that the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on young adults’ mental health. The effects coincident with lockdown and the early stages of the pandemic were ubiquitous and not necessarily restricted to conventional risk factors. Her findings highlight the importance of the availability of pre-pandemic data to properly assess pandemic-driven change in mental health. They further found an increased risk of poorer mental health outcomes in young adults with pre-existing health conditions, in this cohort largely driven by clinically diagnosed depression or anxiety, which further underscores the importance of maintaining access to inclusive mental health-care services during any new COVID-19 waves, or potential future pandemics.
In contrast to our predictions, resilience factors known to support mental health in response to adverse events, such as high self-esteem, or high family or friendship support, had little protective effects on individual psychological responses to the pandemic.
It remains to be seen, however, whether such resilience factors facilitate mental health in the long term, something Anna is currently looking at as participants of this cohort have been followed up another time just a few months ago.
The study and its results: The impact of the initial COVID-19 outbreak on young adults’ mental health: a longitudinal study of risk and resilience factors was published in Scientific Reports and is available here>> https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-21053-2
Anna is a PhD student at the Centre for Epidemiology and is supervised by Professor Peter Jones.
Her research is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
Anna’s PhD focuses on evaluating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young adults’ mental health and wellbeing. She is currently coordinating the COVID-19 follow-up of the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and University College London. Before joining our Department, Anna completed a BSc in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen and an MSc in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford.
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