Pandemic may have triggered second ‘midlife crisis’ in mental health for your generation

Woman looking out the window

Your generation experienced their highest-ever levels of mental ill health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to evidence from BCS70.

Often referred to as the ‘midlife crisis’, psychological distress is known to peak in middle age, improving again as people get older. Your generation already experienced this peak in mental ill-health in your 40s. However, psychological distress levels rose to new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you are struggling with your mental health

Call Samaritans for free on: 116 123. You can call the Samaritans helpline about anything that’s upsetting you. They are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

There is also a useful list of other mental health helplines on the Mind website.

What we asked you

Throughout your adult lives, we have asked you questions about how you feel, which can gauge whether you’re showing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

You also reported on your mental health at three points during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: in May 2020, September/October 2020, and February/March 2021.

Over the years we’ve put the same sorts of questions to participants in two other British cohort studies, who were born in 1946 and 1958.

How did the pandemic impact different generations?

Researchers from UCL and King’s College London found that your generation experienced higher levels of psychological distress during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, on average, than ever before in adulthood. These levels surpassed the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ peak seen in people’s mid-40s to early 50s.

The 1958 cohort’s experience during the pandemic was similar to yours. However, for the 1946 cohort, who were in their mid-70s at the time, mental health worsened but not to the point of a second mid-life crisis.

Across all the generations, when we asked about the difficulties posed by the pandemic, a common theme was missing friends and family.

One BCS70 study member wrote:

“My mum and dad are self-isolating so it’s been hard not going into the home… I am doing shopping and paying bills for them so I can see them through the window but it’s strange.” (Female, age 50).

Worries about loved ones were another common theme. For example:

“I’ve been in full control of my depression. My father on the other hand has struggled big time. Since the outbreak he has become more depressed. He… likes to go out every day and do the food shopping, but this outbreak has meant that he has had to stay at home. He has become more dependent on me.” (Male, age 50)

“The main concern is my children… They are both at interesting and exciting stages of their life, and I do not know how this will now play out and how it will affect them in the next couple of years.” (Female, age 50)

Impacts on mental health worse for women

Women struggled more than men with their mental health across all age groups, widening the already substantial gender inequalities in mental health that existed before the pandemic.

The researchers suggested this may have been because women took on a larger share of the unpaid family caring responsibilities during the pandemic. Other research has shown that domestic and gender-based violence increased during the lockdowns. Among your generation, women’s mental health was also negatively affected by the rising collective death toll of the pandemic.

Why this research matters

Anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of disease worldwide. For some people, added distress could lead to chronic mental ill health or other related health difficulties, which would increase pressure on the NHS.

This research was covered in the Guardian: Pandemic triggered ‘second midlife crisis’ among over-50s, study finds and ‘I struggled to cope’: over-50s in UK describe Covid’s toll on mental health.

Read the full research report

Long-term psychological distress trajectories and the COVID-19 pandemic in three British birth cohorts: A multi-cohort study?by Darío Moreno-Agostino et al. was published in the scientific journal PLOS Medicine in April 2023.