Mental distress among young adults in Great Britain: long‑term trends and early changes during the COVID‑19 pandemic

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

November 11, 2021



In Great Britain, few studies documented mental health trends in young adults in the years preceding 2020, the mental health dimensions affected, and how these compare with changes observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-term trends in mental health among 16–34 year old men and women between 1991 and 2018, and changes between 2018–19 and July–September 2020 were examined using all waves from the British Household Panel Study (1991–2008), the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–20), and the first five UKHLS COVID-19 waves administered in April, May, June, July, and September 2020. Findings are based on the GHQ-12 continuous score (0–36), clinically significant cases (4 + /12) and severe cases (7 + /12) for mental distress, and item endorsements.

Between 1991 and 2018, the prevalence of cases (4 + /12) increased from 14–22% to 19–32% across groups. Increases were largest in women aged 16–24. In April 2020, the risk of caseness (4 + /12) increased across groups by 55% to 80% compared to the 2018–19 baseline. This increase, however, rapidly diminished over time: in July–September 2020, there was only a higher risk of caseness (4 + /12) in men aged 25–34 (prevalence ratio = 1.29, 95% CI 1.01–1.65) compared to the 2018–19 baseline.

Whereas distress surged in April 2020, its return to pre-pandemic levels by September 2020 highlights the nuanced impact that the pandemic may have over time. Given the magnitude of the decline in mental health over the past decade, attention must be given to young adults once the pandemic ends.

Published in

Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology






Online Early

Open Access

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