July 21 (UPI) -- Complaints of mental distress rose by nearly 10% in Britain in April during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown there, a study published Tuesday by The Lancet found.
The increase in mental distress hit women, parents of young children and older adults 70 and older particularly hard, the researchers said.
"Our study suggests that young people's mental health is being disproportionately affected by efforts to stop transmission of the virus," study co-author Dr. Kathryn Abel said in a press release.
"We would recommend policies focused on women, young people and those with preschool-aged children as a priority to prevent future mental illness," said Abel, a professor of psychological medicine and reproductive psychiatry at the University of Manchester.
The findings are based on the U.K. Household Longitudinal Study, a long-term analysis of more than 40,000 British households that has been tracking the mental health of the nation at annual intervals for more than 10 years.
To measure levels of mental distress in participants, researchers used the 12-item General Health Questionnaire.
Survey results collected from 17,000 respondents age 16 and older during the week of April 23, after a few weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns in Britain, were compared with results from more than 15,000 people surveyed in mid-March, before lockdowns started.
In both assessments, participants were asked, on a 0 to 3 scale, to reflect on the previous two weeks and rate how often they experienced symptoms, such as problems sleeping or concentrating, decision making problems or feeling overwhelmed.
The higher the score, up to a potential total of 36, the greater the participants' levels of mental distress, according to the researchers.
More than 27% reported elevated levels of mental distress a few weeks into COVID-19 lockdown in Britain, compared to 19% just before the lockdown, according to the researchers.
In general, women reported higher levels of mental distress -- with an average of just under 14 points on the 36-point scale -- than men, who had an average score of 11.5, the researchers said.
In addition to women, who saw their average mental distress scores rise by nearly one point during the lockdown, young adults age 18 to 24 reported score increases averaging nearly three points, they said.
Adults age 25 to 34 reported mental distress scores nearly two points higher during the lockdown, according to the researchers.
Meanwhile, adults age 70 and older reported average mental distress score increases of 0.2 points, still higher than most, but lower than those of their younger counterparts, the researchers said.
Study participants living with children 5 years and younger reported average mental distress score increases of nearly two points, or about five times higher than those provided by childless participants, according to the researchers.
"The pandemic has brought people's differing life circumstances into stark contrast," co-author Sally McManus, a senior lecturer at City, University of London, said in a statement.
"These findings should help inform social and educational policies aimed at mitigating the impact of the pandemic on ... mental health, so that we can try to avoid a rise in mental illness in the years to come," she said.