Young people overeating as they battle lockdown anxiety, says UK study

Young people are at higher risk of suffering from mental health problems because of lockdown, new research has shown.

Six in 10 young people with pre-existing mental health issues and four in 10 without reported higher levels of stress, according to a study by University College London, Imperial College and the University of Sussex.

Almost half of 16- to 24-year-olds without previous mental health problems reported high levels of depressive symptoms, with one in three saying they experienced moderate to severe levels of anxiety during lockdown, the You-COPE study found.

Separate research by the charity YoungMinds indicates that 80% of teenagers and young adults believe the pandemic had made their mental health worse.
Campaigners say schools need to be given specialist mental health resources before September when children return, and that the government must release “significant new funding” to address young people’s mental health.

The You-COPE researchers also found that 28% of the 1,507 young people in the survey with no previous mental health problems said the quality of their relationships had worsened during the pandemic. Almost half said they had used overeating to cope with their moods; for young people with depression and/or anxiety, it was six in 10.

Lee Hudson, associate professor at UCL and chief of child mental health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: “I’m particularly concerned about the number of young people in our study who have reported overeating as a way of coping with their low moods during lockdown.

“This is really worrying because our study has also shown that many young people receiving mental health care have reported disruption to their services; this can have serious long-term impacts.

“This pandemic has been a double whammy for young people as they are also at greater risk of unemployment.

Lee Hudson

‘We need to do all we can to mitigate the impact of the lockdown on young people’s mental health ’: Lee Hudson, Great Ormond Street Hospital. Photograph: GOSH

“Young people are not a group directly at high risk from Covid, but they are certainly at high risk from the lockdown. They’ve given up a lot on behalf of the whole country. Now we owe it to them to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of the lockdown on their mental health.”

Jacqui Campbell, director of the Julian Campbell Foundation, said teenagers face major major life-changing transitions with exams and moves into further education, university or work, and are particularly vulnerable to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Teenagers are meant to be getting more independent, but have been catapulted back to spend all their time with their parents at home,” she said, adding that home studying had raised stress levels in many.

“We are worried that schools will not have the resources to deal with mental health problems of children when they go back in September.”

The YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people aged 13 to 25 showed that 87% felt lonely or isolated, even though many had been able to stay in touch with friends.

Of those who needed mental health support before the crisis, 31% said they were unable to access support but still needed it. A few – 11% – said their mental health had improved because they could avoid bullying or academic pressure.

Tom Maddens, campaigns director at YoungMinds, said:: “In the last few months, young people have struggled to cope with social isolation, anxiety, a loss of structure and fears about their future. Many of those with mental health problems have also lost their coping mechanisms – including seeing friends or taking part in routine activities – and experienced disruption to their support.”

He said video calls and phone conversations did not work for everyone, and some young people want face-to-face support.

“The government must ensure there is significant new funding to prevent the pandemic from having lasting consequences on mental health. The wellbeing of children and young people must be at the heart of all policy-making, so that decisions across government have a positive impact.”