People suffer stress, anxiety, isolation and despair, and it’s important to understand trends in these conditions. The Office for National Statistics’ regular Opinions and Lifestyle online survey asks four main questions about wellbeing: overall life satisfaction, happiness, life being worthwhile, and anxiety.
The picture is not encouraging. More than 18 months into the pandemic, estimated life satisfaction among British adults has yet to recover to its average score in February 2020. Sampled anxiety peaked in March 2020 and remains above pre-pandemic levels, while the share of adults reporting depressive symptoms doubled for the year after the start of lockdown, from around 10% to 20%.
There have been predictions that restrictions would lead to more suicides: the Sun incorrectly claimed that suicides doubled. Fortunately, the ONS finds this is not the case – the story was later corrected. In the first wave between April and July 2020, suicides in England and Wales were 13% below the 2015-2019 average, mainly arising from fewer among men. A real-time surveillance system showed similar results, while international research among 21 richer countries also suggested rates fell or were stable in the early months of Covid
. There tends to be a similar fall in wartime, although suicides increase afterwards.
Counting suicides is not straightforward. Coroners’ inquests in England and Wales in 2019 led to a median delay of more than five months between when the person died and the death registration. Changes in registrations must therefore be interpreted with caution: suicides registered in April-June 2021 were higher than the same period the year before, but the ONS says this was due to the resumption of coroners’ inquests after pandemic disruption.
Statistics on suicide are grossly inadequate summaries of the loss of life and the impact on families and friends. The Samaritans have reported that suicidal thoughts or behaviours do not appear to have changed as a result of the pandemic, but concerns about coronavirus
were most strongly related to loneliness and isolation. If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK or Ireland), visit their website, or contact other places of support.
* David Spiegelhalter is chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge. Anthony Masters is statistical ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society
* In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org