Protecting mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19

Serving hot meals in a food bank

Research into the psychological and social impact of COVID-19 shaped policies, and helped individuals to protect their mental health and wellbeing.

The UCL COVID-19 Social Study, based on 1.2 million online interviews completed over 105 weeks by over 70,000 individuals, is the UK’s largest study into the social and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by Dr Daisy Fancourt and Professor Andrew Steptoe, this was the only UK study to provide continuous weekly or monthly social data from March 2020 to April 2022. It offered a unique perspective on how the pandemic affected the mental health, wellbeing, behaviours and attitudes of the UK public.

The COVID-19 Social Study’s real-time insight has provided one of the major social science contributions to the pandemic. It has shaped the design and timing of national and local COVID-19 policies, influencing the work of charities and health organisations to support individuals, and helping the public understand how to protect their own wellbeing and mental health.

Video credit: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

About the project

It took just 6 days to launch the study which meant that the first survey sweep could begin ahead of the first lockdown. This feat was possible thanks to the team’s rapid mobilisation of resources from the existing ESRC-funded Mental Health Research Network (MARCH) of which Daisy Fancourt is the principal investigator.

This pre-existing network brought together collaborations of more than 2,000 community organisations and researchers working on social, community and health issues. It made possible the rapid recruitment of a large survey sample of people from a variety of backgrounds, including marginalised and disadvantaged social-economic groups.

Data from the study was based not only on the online surveys, but also 400 telephone interviews with people from a range of different groups, including those people experiencing homelessness, victims of domestic abuse, people with long-term health conditions and frontline healthcare workers. The data highlighted the enormous difficulties faced by a substantial proportion of the population during the pandemic.

Findings show that:

  • around 20% of young adults thought of self-harm or death during the pandemic
  • mental health or physical conditions consistently worsened during the pandemic
  • people struggling financially before COVID-19 were at least 10 times more likely to be worse off financially during the pandemic

Impacts of the project

The UCL COVID-19 Social Study’s real-time data analysis of the pandemic’s effects on people’s mental health and wellbeing, attitudes and behaviours were drawn on by more than 12 Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) documents.

Informing national policymaking

The advice to SAGE informed major policy decisions including when to ease lockdowns, what financial support packages were needed, whether mass testing should be enforced, and how to design the vaccine roll-out.

Data helped the NHS address mental health demand. It also helped the National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group to plan how to reduce self-harm and suicide risk.

Supporting local initiatives

The study’s data informed local authority, third sector and charity responses:

  • helping the British Red Cross plan, deliver and evaluate its services including the Vaccine Voices programme
  • helped the Samaritans to support those feeling suicidal during the pandemic
  • assisted Kent County Council, Oldham Council, London-based mental health charity ThriveLDN and national charity COVIDAid, to decide when to implement mental health support for the public, and to identify groups, most in need of help (including those with long COVID)

Benefiting individual’s mental health

More than 85% of Social Study participants reported it had been a worthwhile experience. Some were prompted to become more mindful of their mental health, seek help if they needed it, connect with others, and engage in healthy behaviours.

Boosting international data resources

Internationally, the data fed into the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) international policy work on pandemic response and mental health, and led to the development of 33 further studies across the WHO European region.

Nils Fietje, Technical Officer, Behavioural and Cultural Insights Unit, WHO Regional Office for Europe said:

The COVID-19 Social Study allowed WHO Europe to demonstrate to its Member States the value of collecting social and behavioural data during the pandemic.

It showed how this could be done efficiently and robustly, with demonstrable impact on COVID-19 policymaking.

The COVID-19 Social study data is currently being made available via the UK Data Service for use by other researchers to maximise its impact and allow the diverse topics it covered to be further explored.

Find out more

The University College London (UCL) COVID-19 Social Study team is a finalist in the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2022. The team includes:

  • Dr Daisy Fancourt
  • Professor Andrew Steptoe
  • Dr Henry Aughterson
  • Dr Jess Bone
  • Alexandra Bradbury
  • Dr Feifei Bu
  • Dr Alexandra Burton
  • Jo Dawes
  • Dr Meg Fluharty
  • Vas James
  • Dr Hei Wan (Karen) Mak
  • Dr Tom May
  • Dr Alison McKinlay
  • Lucy Nicholls
  • Dr Elise Paul
  • Dr Keir Philip
  • Dr Katey Warran
  • Dr Liam Wright

The COVID-19 Social Study, established as part of the ESRC-funded MARCH Network, is also funded and supported by the Nuffield Foundation and Wellcome Trust, and led by UCL.

Top image:  Helpers serving a healthy hot meal to disadvantaged families, wearing protective face masks, aprons and protective gloves. Credit: Vladimir Vladimirov, E+ via Getty Images

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