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Living alone and mental health: parallel analyses in UK longitudinal population surveys and electronic health records prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic

People living alone have poorer mental health and lower life satisfaction. During the pandemic, this gap in self-reported distress remained; however, there was a narrowing of the gap in service use.

BMJ Mental Health, 2023

Paper information

Authors
  • Eoin McElroy,
  • Emily Herrett,
  • Kishan Patel,
  • Dominik Piehlmaier,
  • Giorgio Di Gessa,
  • Charlotte Huggins,
  • Michael Green8,
  • Alex Kwong,
  • Ellen Thompson,
  • Jingmin Zhu,
  • Kathryn Mansfield,
  • Richard Silverwood,
  • Rosie Mansfield,
  • Jane Maddock,
  • Rohini Mathur,
  • Ruth Costello,
  • Anthony Matthews,
  • John Tazare,
  • Alasdair Henderson,
  • Kevin Wing,
  • Lucy Bridges,
  • Seb Bacon,
  • Amir Mehrkar,
  • Richard John Shaw,
  • Jacques Wels,
  • Srinivasa Vittal Katikireddi,
  • Nish Chaturvedi,
  • Laurie Tomlinson,
  • Praveetha Patalay
Citation
McElroy E, Herrett E, Patel K, et al. Living alone and mental health: parallel analyses in UK longitudinal population surveys and electronic health records prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMJ Ment Health. 2023;26(1). doi:10.1136/bmjment-2023-300842
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Background

People who live alone experience greater levels of mental illness; however, it is unclear whether the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionately negative impact on this demographic.

Objective

To describe the mental health gap between those who live alone and with others in the UK prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods

Self-reported psychological distress and life satisfaction in 10 prospective longitudinal population surveys (LPSs) assessed in the nearest pre-pandemic sweep and three periods during the pandemic. Recorded diagnosis of common and severe mental illnesses between March 2018 and January 2022 in electronic healthcare records (EHRs) within the OpenSAFELY-TPP.

Findings

In 37 544 LPS participants, pooled models showed greater psychological distress (standardised mean difference (SMD): 0.09 (95% CI: 0.04; 0.14); relative risk: 1.25 (95% CI: 1.12; 1.39)) and lower life satisfaction (SMD: −0.22 (95% CI: −0.30; −0.15)) for those living alone pre-pandemic. This gap did not change during the pandemic. In the EHR analysis of c.16 million records, mental health conditions were more common in those who lived alone (eg, depression 26 (95% CI: 18 to 33) and severe mental illness 58 (95% CI: 54 to 62) more cases more per 100 000). For common mental health disorders, the gap in recorded cases in EHRs narrowed during the pandemic.

Conclusions

People living alone have poorer mental health and lower life satisfaction. During the pandemic, this gap in self-reported distress remained; however, there was a narrowing of the gap in service use.

Clinical implications

Greater mental health need and potentially greater barriers to mental healthcare access for those who live alone need to be considered in healthcare planning.