The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on socioeconomic inequality in psychological distress in the UK

Apostolos Davillas, Andrew M. Jones

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We use data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) to compare
measures of socioeconomic inequality in psychological distress, measured by the
General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), before (Waves 9 and the Interim 2019
Wave) and during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (April to July 2020).
Based on a caseness measure, the prevalence of psychological distress increased
from 18.5% to 27.7% between the 2019 Wave and April 2020 with some
reversion to earlier levels in subsequent months. Also, there was a systematic
increase in total inequality in the Likert GHQ-12 score. However, measures of
relative socioeconomic inequality have not increased. A Shapley-Shorrocks decomposition analysis shows that during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic (April 2020) other socioeconomic factors declined in their share of
socioeconomic inequality, while age and gender account for a larger share. The
most notable increase is evident for younger women. The contribution of working
in an industry related to the COVID-19 response played a small role at Wave 9
and the Interim 2019 Wave, but more than tripled its share in April 2020. As
the first wave of COVID-19 progressed, the contribution of demographics
declined from their peak level in April and chronic health conditions, housing
conditions, and neighbourhood characteristics increased their contributions to
socioeconomic inequality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1668-1683
Number of pages16
JournalHealth Economics
Issue number7
Early online date26 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • COVID-19
  • GHQ
  • health equity
  • mental health
  • psychological distress
  • socioeconomic inequality

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