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Mental health of the disadvantaged and financially vulnerable suffering most in pandemic

28 April 2021

The mental health of people newly reliant on benefits and financial support during the pandemic has worsened far more than in the wider population, according to the annual Society Watch report by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

NatCen analysed data collected from over 12,000 people aged 16 or over in the United Kingdom between April 2020 and January 2021 for the Understanding Society COVID-19 survey and identified different financial pathways through the pandemic.

Increases in mental distress occurred in all groups, but the largest increases by far were felt by society’s financial ‘help-seekers’ – people needing financial support other than furlough, such as the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme or a new claim for Universal Credit, after their income was hit by the pandemic.

42% of people this group reported being in poor mental health at the beginning of 2021, an increase from 29% before the crisis.

People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were twice as likely as White people to be ‘help-seekers’ requiring financial support and facing the greatest increases in mental distress during the pandemic, the research has found.

A separate group of ‘multi-strugglers’ – those facing numerous and long-term financial difficulties – consistently faced the highest levels of mental distress both before and during the crisis.

54% in this group – which had the highest proportion of new Universal Credit claimants – reported poor mental health at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April 2020.

People from BAME backgrounds were similarly more than twice as likely as White people to be members of this most economically vulnerable group.

Between May 2020 and January 2021, people classed as financial ‘multi-strugglers’ were three times more likely than people whose finances improved during the crisis to report a new diagnosis for a mental illness.

Dr Neil Smith, Head of Analysis at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “We can observe increased mental distress across the population as a consequence of the pandemic, but people faced with growing financial insecurity have been far harder hit than the financially secure. With the economic fallout of the pandemic expected to continue, the mental health of people relying on employment and benefits support during the crisis should not be ignored.”

Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, said: “As pandemic restrictions ease, we might expect improvement in the public’s mental health. Longer term, improving mental health might be related to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda for the United Kingdom. If we have a strong economy where economic benefits are more evenly shared and fewer people are ‘left behind’, we might begin to see longer term improvements in mental health.”

Alongside the new analysis, NatCen’s Society Watch report paints a wider picture of mental health in Britain before and since the crisis. Additional key findings:

  • In the early months of the pandemic a substantial increase in mental distress in the UK population occurred but did not affect all groups equally.
  • Established health inequalities persisted, with prevalence of mental distress higher in people with pre-existing health conditions, those living in low-income homes.
  • New inequalities in mental distress also emerged, with women, people living with young children and those in employment at the start of the pandemic being at risk of larger increases in mental distress.
  • The proportion of children aged 5 to 16 with at least one mental health disorder has risen from one in nine before the pandemic (2017) to one in six during the crisis (July 2020).
  • Children with a probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely as children without a probable mental disorder to live in households that had fallen behind with payments during the pandemic (July 2020).
  • As the pandemic continued through its first year, women’s well-being was more negatively affected than men’s. Women were more likely to have been furloughed, and to spend significantly less time working from home and more time on unpaid household work and childcare.
  • Young women continue to have high rates of poor mental health. 27.2% of women aged 17 to 22 had a probable mental disorder during the pandemic compared with 13.3% of young men (July 2020).
  • People in insecure employment were much more likely to experience worsening mental health during the pandemic. However, mental health improved slightly for those in this group who were “furloughed”.
  • In the older population, there is a strong link between socio-economic vulnerability and depression. Before the pandemic, older people relying on state benefits were three times more likely to be affected by depression than those not receiving state benefits.
  • Depression, anxiety and loneliness has been greater during the pandemic in older people in high-risk groups and self-isolating; depression was also more common in older people with multiple long-term health difficulties.
  • For children, adults and older people, food insecurity - either not having enough or well-balanced food or increased reliance on foodbanks - is linked with poorer mental health.
  • Pre-pandemic, around half of older people who could only afford to eat balanced meals sometimes or often were affected by depression compared with one in six of those who can always afford to eat balanced meals (2018/19).

NatCen’s Society Watch 2021 report is available at The briefing paper, “Financial inequalities and mental health during the pandemic”, is available here.


With all enquiries please contact:

Oliver Paynel, National Centre for Social Research
Direct: 0207 549 9550
Mobile: 07734 960 071

Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (

2. NatCen’s annual Society Watch series provides a snapshot of what life is like for people in Britain today, a picture of people’s lives and life opportunities presented from the cradle to the grave.

3. Understanding Society (the UK Household Longitudinal Study) is a large, nationally representative household panel study that interviews all members of randomly selected households. All participants from waves of the main survey conducted between 2017 and 2019 were invited to take part in a COVID-19 study about respondents’ employment situation and their mental health throughout the pandemic. From April 2020, a shorter web-survey was regularly fielded to collect information on participants’ lives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (

4. The analysis of Understanding Society data cited in this press release was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 (Grant ES/V009877/1).

5. NatCen’s analysis of financial inequalities and mental health during the pandemic is based on data from 12,426 adults aged 16 or over in the United Kingdom who supplied information about their financial situation in November 2020 (Understanding Society COVID Study wave 6). The analysis categorises peoples’ financial experiences during the first nine months of the pandemic into six different groups:

  • Undisrupted – little change to individual/household income.
  • Beneficiaries – increased individual and/or household income during the pandemic.
  • Copers – took a financial hit but didn’t need to change their behaviour much to cover it.
  • Self-supporters – drop in individual and/or household income but used savings or reduced expenditure cover this.
  • Help-seekers – reduced individual and/or household income and looked for external help, such as borrowing, benefits or new employment.
  • Multi-strugglers – people who needed to take advantage of many different types of non-work based financial support.

6. Mental distress was measured using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) designed to assess common psychiatric conditions. The GHQ consists of 12 items, each assessing the severity of a mental problem over the past few weeks using a 4-point scale (from 0 to 3). The analysis used the total GHQ score (ranging from 0 to 36), with higher scores indicating worse mental distress.