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Greater mental distress and loneliness among people shielding during the pandemic, survey finds

26 January 2021 | Tags: health, Scottish Health Survey, smoking, drinking, mental health, weight

The Scottish Health Survey - Telephone Survey 2020, published by Scottish Government and conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen), finds people advised to shield were more likely to have reported mental distress and loneliness during the pandemic. The survey also suggests men have been less likely than women to keep in frequent contact with friends, neighbours or relatives since lockdown.

This was the first time the Scottish Health Survey interviews have been conducted by telephone. The results are published as Experimental Statistics and are not directly comparable with the survey results for previous years.

In the survey, conducted between August and September 2020, around a third (32%) of people advised to shield scored four or more on the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), indicating a possible psychiatric disorder, compared with around a fifth (21%) of those not advised to shield.[1]

People advised to shield also reported significantly lower mental wellbeing than those who were not (based on average WEMWBS scores of 48.5 and 52.3 respectively).[2]

In addition, people in this group were more than twice as likely as others to report being lonely ‘often’ or ‘all of the time’ in the past two weeks (11% compared with 4%).

Around one in five (18%) adults advised to shield reported undertaking no physical activity in the week prior to being interviewed, compared with one in twenty (5%) of those not advised to shield.

The survey, which interviewed 1,920 adults aged 16 and over, also found men reported having less social contact with others than women.

Men were less likely to contact friends, neighbours or relatives ‘most days’ (71% and 85% respectively), being more likely than women to do so just ‘once or twice’ a week (24% and 12% respectively).

Similarly, men were almost twice as likely as women to report having no one, or only one person, to turn to for support in a crisis (9% of men, 5% of women).

People who reported keeping in contact with friends, relatives or neighbours less frequently – once or twice a month or less often, including never – reported lower mental wellbeing than those who said they kept in touch with others on ‘most days’.

Lacking support in a crisis was also linked to lower mental wellbeing, while the opposite was true for people with a wider support network to draw on if needed.

The largest proportion of all adults said they had between 2 and 5 people they could to turn to for support in a crisis (50% of all adults interviewed for the survey).

The survey also found:

  • Almost 4 in 10 adults (43% women and 34% men) said that their weight increased between the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020 and the date of interview.
  • Most people who drank any alcohol reported no change in their drinking habits  (amount or frequency), but around one quarter (24%) reported drinking more often since lockdown began, and 12% reported that the amount of alcohol they drank had increased.
  • Just over a third of cigarette smokers (36%) reported smoking more since the beginning of lockdown.

Joanne McLean, Research Director at the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen), said: “This research shows how important contact with loved ones and neighbours – by phone, online, or in-person – can be for our wellbeing at this time.”

“This survey also provides new evidence on the health and wellbeing of people asked to shield during the pandemic. The vast majority of respondents advised to shield were living with long-term limiting conditions, linked to lower wellbeing, and most were in older age groups. We know from existing Public Health Scotland data that people on the shielding list are also more likely to live in more deprived areas, linked to poorer quality housing and less access to green spaces for exercise. [3] These factors may all have exacerbated the challenges of shielding during the pandemic.”

“The impact of the pandemic, if any, on health-related behaviours such as smoking, eating habits, physical activity and weight gain looks to be variable across the population. It will be important to continue to monitor this at population level over the coming year.”

ENDS

The Scottish Health Survey - Telephone Survey 2020 main report can be accessed here: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-health-survey-telephone-survey-august-september-2020-main-report/

For more information, contact:

Oliver Paynel
Media and Communications Officer, Scottish Centre for Social Research
Tel: 0207 549 9550
Direct: 07734 960 071 

Notes to editors

1. The Scottish Health Survey provides information on the health, and factors relating to health, of adults and children in Scotland. It is commissioned by the Scottish Government Health Directorates and has been running since 1995.

2. The Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.

3. Due to the pandemic, all face-to-face interviewing on the survey has been suspended since the 17 March 2020. The Scottish Health Survey - Telephone Survey 2020 involved a shortened telephone version of the annual survey for adults aged 16 and over, which respondents opted into following an initial contact by letter.

4. The Scottish Health Survey - Telephone Survey 2020 interviewed 1,920 adults (aged 16 and over) by telephone between 5th August and 23rd September 2020. This shorter data collection period means that it was not possible to monitor changes that can occur as a result of seasonality or as restrictions have been eased or reintroduced.

5. This was the first time the Scottish Health Survey interviews have been conducted by telephone. The results are published as Experimental Statistics and are not directly comparable with the survey results for previous years. See standards of official statistics in Scotland for more information. The Scottish Health Survey main report is published alongside a technical report setting out the survey methodology on the Scottish Health Survey website. For more information on Experimental Statistics see standards of official statistics in Scotland.

6. The presence of a possible psychiatric disorder was measured using the General Health Questionnaire 12 (GHQ-12), a widely used standard measure consisting of 12 questions on concentration abilities, sleeping patterns, self-esteem, stress, despair, depression, and confidence in the previous few weeks. These scores are combined to create an overall score of between zero and twelve. A score of four or more (referred to as a high GHQ-12 score) has been used here to indicate the presence of a possible psychiatric disorder.

7. Mental wellbeing was assessed by the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) which is based on a questionnaire that looks at indicators such as optimism, energy and self-acceptance. The WEMWBS measures mental wellbeing on a scale from 14 (lowest) to 70 (highest).

8. Differences in levels of response by area deprivation were greater than for the annual Scottish Health Survey, with fewer people in deprived areas taking part. The survey weighting controlled for this as far as possible but the indication is that there were an insufficient number of interviews amongst people in very deprived areas. Hence, for some indicators that are generally higher in deprived areas it is possible that the telephone survey results may underestimate true prevalence. 

9. Some of the more sensitive questions in the survey (such as those on mental health and loneliness) are usually included in a self-completion form which may elicit a more accurate response from some participants who feel more comfortable answering sensitive questions privately. Hence, for these indicators the telephone survey may less accurately reflect true prevalence.

10. Physical activity data was collected using the Short-Form International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ). This questionnaire defines activity levels based on reported moderate or vigorous physical activity (MVPA) but uses a less detailed set of questions than those included in the face-to-face SHeS surveys and hence it is not comparable with the face-to-face survey approach.


[1] Mental distress and mental ill-health was measured using the General Health Questionnaire 12 (GHQ-12), a widely used standard measure consisting of 12 questions on concentration abilities, sleeping patterns, self-esteem, stress, despair, depression, and confidence in the previous few weeks. These scores are combined to create an overall score of between zero and twelve. A score of four or more has been used here to indicate the presence of a possible psychiatric disorder.

[2] Mental wellbeing was assessed by the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) which is based on a questionnaire that looks at indicators such as optimism, energy and self-acceptance. The WEMWBS measures mental wellbeing on a scale from 14 (lowest) to 70 (highest).