Mental Health Champion Statement on Department of Health's Health Survey (NI) Results 2021/2022

The Department of Health recently published the results of their 2021/2022 Health Survey, which you can view here:

The Health Survey includes questions around mental health and the following is a statement from the Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O'Neill, about what these results mean: 

"The Department of Health’s annual Health Survey provides us with evidence regarding the health of the NI adult population, including mental health. As Mental Health Champion, it is important that I monitor the evidence on mental health and comment on the implications. These data show that around one in five people (21%) have possible mental health difficulty defined as a score of 4 or more on the GHQ12. This proportion is significantly lower than the figure for 2020/21, which was 27%, probably as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s figure is closer to the pre-pandemic level of 19% in 2019/20. This mirrors trends internationally which show that the pandemic resulted in an increase in symptoms or poor mental health. For many these symptoms reduced as countries emerged from periods of high rates of covid infections and restrictions, this resulted in lower percentages of people meeting the criteria for poor mental health on these surveys.

Males (16%) were less likely than females (25%) to report poor metal health (using the definition above). The proportion of males with poor mental health has returned to the pre-pandemic level, however the proportion of females with poor mental health remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. Numerous studies demonstrate that the mental health impact of the pandemic was worse for women and these data support that assertion. Other studies show that those in deprived areas had worse mental health during the height of the pandemic and in this study people who live in the most deprived areas were again more likely to have poor mental health (30%) than those in the least deprived areas (20%).

More than a third (35%) of the population had concerns about their own mental health in the past year (15% definitely; 20% to some extent).  This figure was again similar to the 2020/21 findings (38% overall: 17% definitely & 21% to some extent). 18% showed signs of loneliness (as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale), with higher proportions in urban areas and in the most deprived areas.

It is important to remember that whilst these data are, in some ways reassuring, because they show that the mental health of the adult population has returned to the pre-pandemic levels, mental illness is preventable, and these rates remain too high. Furthermore, the data masks some important trends. Many sub-populations in NI continue to suffer much poorer mental health as a result of the pandemic. These groups include people with existing/ long term mental illness, carers, lone parents, health care workers, other frontline workers, people with physical illness, disabled people, and people who were hospitalised due to covid. Alcohol is an important contributor to poor mental health in NI and in 2021/22 79% of adults reported that they drank alcohol, the proportion was 81% in 2020/21 and 77% in 2019/20. Male drinkers (22%) were twice as likely as female drinkers (11%) to report drinking on three or more days per week, levels of alcohol consumption may well have a detrimental mental health impact.

The data do not include children; their mental health has been declining over the past decade. It is also worth noting that the 2020/21 and 2021/22 surveys were conducted by phone, and the response rate was 47% compared with the usual 55%. Both these points may have influenced the generalisability of the results and our ability to compare this year’s results with previous years.

Poor mental health can be prevented by addressing childhood adversity, reducing chronic stress and trauma exposure, and intervening early to help those with symptoms of poor mental health. Actions across society, especially in the education system and at community level, are necessary to lower these figures. The Department of Health’s Mental Health Strategy is a strong 10-year plan to address poor mental health and improve mental health services in NI. Years 0 and 1 of the plan are in progress. For example, Specialist Perinatal Mental Health Services are operational, the Regional Crisis Intervention Service is being progressed, and a new single Regional Mental Health Service has been announced. However, I have concerns that the funding for this Strategy for year 3 and beyond is uncertain. Finally, the current cost of living crisis may result in more people experiencing overwhelming pressure that affects their mental health and it is important that we put in place mitigations to support people financially and interventions for those whose mental health has suffered as a result."