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Association between psychological distress trajectories from adolescence to midlife and mental health during the pandemic: evidence from two British birth cohorts.

BACKGROUND: This paper examined whether distinct life-course trajectories of psychological distress from adolescence to midlife were associated with poorer mental health outcomes during the pandemic.

METHODS: We present a secondary analysis of two nationally representative British birth cohorts, the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS) and 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70). We used latent variable mixture models to identify pre-pandemic longitudinal trajectories of psychological distress and a modified Poisson model with robust standard errors to estimate associations with psychological distress, life satisfaction and loneliness at different points during the pandemic.

RESULTS: Our analysis identified five distinct pre-pandemic trajectories of psychological distress in both cohorts. All trajectories with prior symptoms of psychological distress irrespective of age of onset, severity and chronicity were associated with a greater relative risk of poorer mental health outcomes during the pandemic and the probability of poorer mental health associated with psychological distress trajectories remained fairly constant. The relationship was not fully attenuated when most recent pre-pandemic psychological distress and other midlife factors were controlled for.

CONCLUSIONS: Whilst life-course trajectories with any prior symptoms of psychological distress put individuals at greater risk of poor mental health outcomes during the pandemic, those with chronic and more recent occurrences were at highest risk. In addition, prior poor mental health during the adult life-course may mean individuals are less resilient to shocks, such as pandemics. Our findings show the importance of considering heterogeneous mental health trajectories across the life-course in the general population in addition to population average trends.

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