A study found that the UK has experienced what lead researcher Prof Nick Freemantle called “a massive increase, a profound increase” in anxiety, which began in 2008 when the worldwide crash caused by bad bank loans triggered large-scale unemployment and financial insecurity. The findings emerged in one of the biggest studies of anxiety undertaken in the UK for many years, examining trends in diagnosis and treatment by GPs since 1998 by analysing 6.6 million patients at 795 practices across the country.
Anxiety has trebled among young adults, affecting 30% of women aged 18 to 24, and has increased across the board among men and women under 55 with the financial crash, austerity, Brexit, climate change and social media blamed for massive rises in the condition. Some of those events may well have “contributed to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, coming as they did after years of financial insecurity”, elaborated Freemantle, a professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics, and director of the Comprehensive Clinical Trials Unit at University College London.
In 2008, 8.42% of women aged 18 to 24 suffered anxiety, the study found, more than trebling to 30.33% by 2018. The proportion of women aged 25 to 34 with anxiety more than doubled over that time, from 9.08% to 21.69%, while there were smaller increases among women aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54.
The incidence of anxiety in young and middle-aged men followed the same trajectory, although fewer had been diagnosed when the study period started, a gender divide that has not narrowed. Generalised anxiety disorder trebled from 4.95% to 14.88% among men aged 18 to 24, more than doubled from 9.08% to 21.69% among those aged 25 to 34 and rose to a lesser degree among those aged between 35 and 54.
The surge was accompanied by a big rise during 2009-14 in sick days workers in England and Wales took off due to stress, depression and anxiety. Six in 10 (62%) of those with anxiety also had depression, they found.
“Given the steep increases in anxiety revealed by this research, and the sheer number of people affected, it is now clear that Britain has a really serious and worsening problem with anxiety, which can have devastating effects on people’s lives. And these data stopped just before the Covid-19 pandemic; we can only speculate on how they would look now.” Experts warned that the profound impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s health, jobs and daily lives almost certainly meant anxiety had increased even further this year.
“Rates of anxiety crept up a bit from 1998. But suddenly there was this explosion in 2008 in both the absolute numbers and also in particular in women and especially young women. That’s when the increase went through the roof,” Freemantle explained. “These findings illustrate the human cost of what was going on in society at the time – that is, a recession. The 2008 crash was characterised by unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Young people who were just starting out in adult life had the rug pulled out from under them," he added.