Significant increase in depression seen among young people

COVID-19 pandemic,Staying home

The first lockdown in the UK led to a significant increase in symptoms of depression among children according to a new study from the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The study was conducted by the council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge and published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government implemented a national lockdown involving school closures and social distancing. There has been widespread concern that these measures would negatively impact child and adolescent mental health. To date, however, there is relatively little direct evidence of this.

The most direct way of measuring the association between the onset of lockdown and children’s mental health is to follow the same individuals over a length of time and look for so-called ‘longitudinal’ changes.

Examining mental health data

To test whether changes in emotional wellbeing, anxiety and depression symptoms occurred during lockdown since their initial assessment, a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences unit examined data from mental health assessments on 168 children (aged 8 -12 years) before and during the UK lockdown. These assessments included:

  • self-reports
  • caregiver reports
  • teacher reports.

Relative to their own pre-pandemic scores, children tended to show more symptoms of depression during lockdown.

Even though these symptoms are variable across children, the impact of lockdown can still be seen because the effect size is large. The researchers used the variability in scores to estimate how big an increase this is.

Rise in depressive symptoms

Dr Duncan Astle from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and senior author of the study explained:

To give an indication of how large this effect is, imagine ranking the children into 100 ‘centiles’ depending on their scores,.

A child in the 50th centile would be exactly at the middle of the distribution. But a child at this position before the pandemic, could expect to be at the equivalent of the 77th centile during the lockdown.

Put differently, if you randomly selected a child from the sample there is a 70% chance that their depression symptoms were worse during lockdown than before the pandemic.

No change in anxiety or emotional wellbeing

The team found only very small and not statistically significant changes in children’s scores for emotional problems and anxiety during lockdown.

The researchers say that how the lockdown measures impact children’s mental health may depend on a variety of factors. A recent study found that loneliness in children was associated with subsequent mental health problems, particularly depression. Also, during lockdown children had fewer opportunities to engage in play and other fun activities that help improve mood.

The research was funded by the MRC with additional support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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