For many Londoners, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most challenging period of our lives, taking a heavy toll on mental health and wellbeing. The uncertain nature of the virus and the restrictions in place have impeded on natural and usual resources for wellbeing, as well as coping mechanisms and opportunities for social interaction.1
Thrive LDN has established a public mental health research and community insights function to analyse and present findings from available data, intelligence, and capture insights from Londoners to inform Thrive LDN engagement and activities and wider stakeholders involved in public mental health across London.
Now, over 20 months after the pandemic has emerged and London continues to respond to the pandemic and prepares for the potential impact of the Omicron variant and other winter pressures, we have taken stock of how Londoners’ mental health and wellbeing have been impacted in a nuanced and complex manner.
The following intelligence outlines the evidence, research and insights captured across a range of areas through Thrive LDN’s research and community insights’ function. Information has been synthesised and summarised to give a current view of public mental health in London and anticipate what lies ahead. For a more detailed and comprehensive view of mental health and wellbeing in the capital, please see our series of briefings across a range of topics.
Update & Overview
Population mental health
Overall, trends in population mental health appear to broadly follow trends of the virus and restrictions in place to control it2. The prevalence of the Omicron variant in London and associated challenges is likely to be a source of stress and anxiety for many Londoners. As noted in previous waves of the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety as well as overall happiness and life satisfaction follow patterns of national lockdowns, with people’s wellbeing being lowest during periods with the tightest restrictions and returning to a level closer to pre-pandemic levels once these restrictions are eased.
Across the insights captured as part of Thrive LDN’s community engagement activities,10 struggling with uncertainty for the future has been a persistently common theme. However, there has also been a definite theme of hope. Communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic identified the positive significance of family and support structures as well as the support offered by the wider community and faith groups.
The mental health impacts are falling unequally across society. Some groups, including front-line workers, young people and Londoners with pre-existing mental health conditions, have been experiencing more critical mental health concerns, with the effects more likely to persist.
Findings from community insights indicate that for many communities across London, the coronavirus pandemic has been seen as the latest crisis event in a crisis trend – a steadily worsening series of situations faced by disadvantaged communities across London.
COVID-19 itself has a direct impact on mental health and wellbeing for many Londoners. Careful consideration must be given to survivors of the virus and the bereaved, along with collective trauma associated with the pandemic, the ongoing vaccination programme and the exacerbated issue of digital exclusion. Whilst it is necessary to consider these factors independently as part of the response to the pandemic, it is vital to put prevention of poor mental health at the centre of recovery and ensure that Londoners who need help and support receive it.
We know that the UK entered the pandemic from a position of stagnant income growth and low levels of financial resilience3. The pandemic has compounded mental health and economic hardship4 and the accelerating pace of social, financial, and geographic inequalities has widened the gap in mental wellbeing and future health outcomes for Londoners.
Future trends and forecasting
Various forecasting models indicates that the prevalence of poor mental health is expected to increase and that this could impact on demand for mental health services over the next three years. Research from the King’s Fund5 suggests that up to 75% of the population will experience normal distress that should resolve with the right support but could escalate if left unaddressed. The research goes on to suggest that 15-20% of the population will experience mild to moderate disorder and 3-4% severe disorder. Already, intelligence from the health and social care system confirms increased demand for specialist services and more complex cases, such as young people with eating disorders, and self-harm, has increased.
As the pandemic evolves, it is important to reflect on the effects of coping with and responding to COVID-19. The London response during the first national lockdown was largely rooted in voluntary and community action, with swift and heroic efforts in March and April 2020 resulting in innovation and transformation at a scale and speed never seen before. Anecdotal insights suggest that the wellbeing and resilience of voluntary organisations and community groups has been worn down over time. That, along with changing public mood and reduced confidence in government, may mean that the voluntary and community response is not at the same scale as it was during the first national lockdown. If that is the case, it will impact London’s most vulnerable the greatest.