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A 'perfect storm' of factors increased the risk of COVID-19 in young adults following first lockdown, says new study

A combination of mental health, social and economic factors may have contributed to the rise of COVID-19 infections in young adults since the last lockdown, and a ‘blame culture’ will not help the efforts to regain control of the disease in this group, according to a new study.

A ‘perfect storm’ of factors increased the risk of COVID-19 in young adults following first lockdown, says new study

A team of experts, led by Professor Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham and Professor Trudie Chalder from King’s College London, conducted an online survey during the first six weeks of the first UK-wide lockdown. 3,097 people responded, with 364 respondents being between 18-24 years old.

The findings showed that the mental health of 18-24 year olds in the first six weeks of the lockdown in March this year, was significantly poorer than that of older respondents and previously published norms: with 84% reporting symptoms of depression and 72% reporting symptoms of anxiety. Young adults also reported significantly greater loneliness and reduced positive mood.

The study also found that during the first lockdown, 18-24 year olds were as likely to adhere to social distancing rules; as likely to be worried about the risk of COVID-19 to others, although less worried about the risk of COVID-19 to themselves, when compared with the rest of the respondents.

In this latest study, published in Public Health, the team examined how the mental health of young people may have combined with the wider context of the pandemic to have contributed to the rise of COVID-19 infections in this age bracket following the first lockdown. 

The authors conclude that:

  • The easing of lockdown provided a much-needed opportunity to restore emotional well-being among this age group through social interaction;
  • Economic messages actively encouraged this social interaction (Eat Out to Help Out);
  • Public health messaging (from the outset) has minimised the risk of the disease to this age group;
  • Prolonged period of distress and loneliness have been found previously to impair the immune system and increase the risk of other viral infections. This may also occur with COVID-19.
Young people, who are in a vulnerable stage of development, should not be labelled as problematic. Rather, they should be provided with compassionate public health messages which demonstrate understanding of the very real educational, social and psychological difficulties they face.– Professor Trudie Chalder from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London

Professor Kavita Vedhara from University of Nottingham said: ‘We did not see any evidence that young adults were any less concerned about COVID-19 or less likely to follow social distancing rules in the first lockdown. Rather, our study suggests that a combination of mental health difficulties, and the social and economic circumstances of many young adults created a perfect storm of factors which increased their risk of COVID-19 infection. Contrary to the widely held view that young adults are to blame for the second surge in infection, it is more likely that the socio-political context of the UK, combined with the mental health effects of the pandemic, created the circumstances in which young adults have been exposed to COVID-19 sooner, and for longer, since lockdown was eased.

These high levels of mental health difficulties among young adults should not, however, be weaponised to argue against the second national lockdown.– Professor Kavita Vedhara from University of Nottingham

She continued, ‘Undoubtedly there will be some adverse effects on mental health, but a national lockdown is likely to be less damaging for mental health than local tiering which people have found to be confusing, of questionable effectiveness, with no clear exit strategy and has served to undermine social cohesion. As such, tiering carries the very real risk of making mental health significantly worse by increasing uncertainty, making people feel more out of control, helpless and marginalized. In contrast a national lockdown can help to rebuild social cohesion and a sense of common purpose, be effective in suppressing the disease and concerns relating to the infection, and also allow people to draw on the skills they developed to cope with the first lockdown.’

Jia R, Ayling K, Chalder T, Massey A, Broadbent E, Morling JR, Coupland C, Vedhara K, Young people, mental health and COVID-19 infection: The canaries we put in the coal-mine, Public Health, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2020.10.018

Contact: For interviews or any further media information please contact Louise Pratt, Head of Communications, IoPPN: louise.a.pratt@kcl.ac.uk / +44 7850 919020

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Trudie Chalder

Trudie Chalder

Professor of Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy