UK-based Study Finds People with COVID-19 Symptoms More Susceptible to General Psychiatric Disorders, Loneliness

Sydney Jennings

Associate Editor of Patient Care Online

A survey of >15 000 UK respondents found people who have or had COVID-19 are more likely to develop general psychiatric disorders and loneliness.

A new study published in the journal Psychiatry Research suggests people who have or had coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) symptoms are more likely to develop general psychiatric disorders and are lonelier.

Despite previous research on specific COVID-19-related disorders like anxiety, depression, and insomnia, little is known about the broader psychological impact of COVID-19 on a wider population.

“Only focusing on specific disorders underestimates the psychiatric burdens of the pandemic in more subtle forms and overlooks the needs for psychiatric care of the people who have not been clinically diagnosed,” said study authors.

The study was based on 15 530 UK respondents who completed an online questionnaire between April 24 to April 30, 2020, and is the first large-scale, nationally representative survey of COVID-19 in a developed country.

The study measured general psychiatric disorders using the 12 items from the widely accepted General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), which looks at factors ranging from depressive anxiety symptoms to confidence to overall happiness. The GHQ measures the questions on a 4-point scale where 1 means “less than usual” and 4 means “much more than usual.”

Loneliness was measured by a question adapted from the English Longitudinal Study on Aging about how often respondents felt lonely in the previous 4 weeks.

The results showed that 29.2% of all respondents scored a 4 (the “caseness” or clinical referral threshold) or more on the general psychiatric disorder scale, and 35.86% of respondents said they sometimes or often felt lonely. Regression analyses showed that respondents who have or had COVID-19 related symptoms were more likely to develop general psychiatric disorders and are lonelier.

“People with current or past COVID-19 symptoms were perhaps more likely to develop general psychiatric disorders because they are more anxious about infection, and their greater loneliness may reflect the fact that they were isolated from family and friends,” said co-author Senhu Wang, PhD, Centre for Business Research, Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, in a press release.

Women and young people (aged 18-30 years) were found to be significantly more at risk from general psychiatric disorders and loneliness but having a job and living with a partner during the pandemic were both “significant protective factors,” said the study.

“Future research and public health policies need to move beyond specific psychiatric disorders to attend to the general psychiatric disorders and loneliness of a larger proportion of the population,” concluded authors. “They need to pay special attention to vulnerable populations including women, the younger, the unemployed, those not living with a partner, and those who have or had COVID-19 symptoms.