Time trend analysis of social inequalities in psychological distress among young adults before and during the pandemic: evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study COVID-19 waves

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

May 15, 2022


Background: Despite concerns about mental health problems among those aged 16–24 in England, which social groups have been most at risk, both over the past decade and during the COVID-19 pandemic, remains unclear.

Methods: We examined trends in psychological distress among young adults 16–24 years old in England using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Using longitudinal data as repeated cross-sectional waves, we examined differences over time in mean General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) scores from wave 1 (2009–2010) to wave 10 (2018–2019) and six COVID-19 waves collected between April and November 2020, by economic activity, cohabitation with parents, parental education, area deprivation, ethnicity, age and sex.

Results: Compared with 2009–2010, increases in GHQ scores in 2018–2019 were higher in women than men (2.1 vs 1.3), those aged 16–18 than aged 22–24 (2.6 vs 0.9), those from white UK group versus other ethnic minorities, and those out of the labour force (3.6) or employed part time (2.2) than those employed full time (0.8). Compared with 2018–2019, psychological distress in 2020 also further increased among young adults residing in the most deprived areas (4.1 vs 1.2 in the least deprived areas). In 2020, losing one’s job or most of one’s work hours was associated with higher psychological distress and attenuated the differences between deprivation quartiles by 17%.

Conclusion: In England, inequalities in psychological distress among young adults may have changed and increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Investing in opportunities for young adults, particularly in more deprived areas, may be key to improve population levels of mental health.

Published in

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Volume and page numbers

Volume: 76 , p.421 -427







Open Access

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2022. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.



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