Properly-being declined in the course of the pandemic, however improved with closure
(Photo: Unsplash / Imani Clovis)
In fact, most reviews have found this to be the case. However, these studies typically cannot distinguish between the effects of the pandemic and the specific barriers. This is because they often only compare people's mental states before the pandemic and after the introduction of locks. A decline in wellbeing could be a response to the general pandemic.
To better assess the impact of locks on wellbeing, we need to isolate and compare the critical period after the pandemic started but before the locks started, how people felt at that point, and how they felt during the locks.
For this purpose, we carried out studies with data from YouGov's weekly mood tracker in Great Britain and Google Trends. After an increase in negative emotions at the beginning of the pandemic, our working paper found that well-being improved after the blockade began – but not for all social groups.
Separation of barriers from the pandemic
From June 2019 to June 2020, YouGov surveyed a nationwide sample of around 2,000 respondents per week across the UK. They were asked to report on 12 moods: happiness, contentment, inspiration, optimism, energy, sadness, apathy, stress, boredom, frustration, loneliness and fear.
Data from the survey indicate that the pandemic had a strong negative impact on people's moods, but it quickly returned to baseline after the ban was introduced. Boredom, loneliness, frustration and apathy increased with the introduction of lockdown, but also happiness, optimism, satisfaction and even inspiration. In the meantime, sadness, fear and stress fell.
Unfortunately, questions about general life satisfaction were only included in the mood tracker in April 2020. In order to check how the pandemic and the blockade affect people's general well-being, we had to assign respondents scores based on their mood data for the period before April (we calculated the scores using a statistical method called regression.
The results of this analysis – shown in the following figure – are far from ideal, but indicate that life satisfaction with the onset of the pandemic also declined and recovered after the blockade began.
Lockdowns, while challenging, are a crucial and effective government response. So it is perhaps not surprising that the introduction of COVID-19 increased rapidly in March and that its introduction would to some extent reduce people's concerns.
Use Google to compare countries
We then turned to Google search data to look at other countries. We wanted to see how people's feelings about negative emotions – known as "negative affect" – could have changed over time.
Google Trends shows the relative popularity of certain Google search terms week by week. We focused on the June 2019 through June 2020 period and limited our analysis to English speaking countries – namely the UK, New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, Ireland, the United States and Canada.
We then created a measure of negative impact by looking at the combined popularity of the following terms: "psychological stress", "boredom", "frustration", "sadness", "fear" and "apathy".
As shown in the following figure, the trend of negative effects on Google searches in the UK closely matches the trend in the YouGov sentiment survey.
Google data shows similar trends in other English-speaking countries. This level of negative impact increased sharply with the outbreak of the pandemic and then began to decline as barriers were introduced.
Statistical analysis of these trends in Google data shows that the negative impact decreased by an average of 17% within a month immediately after various locks were introduced. Given that locks tended to start when insecurity, new COVID-19 cases and daily deaths peaked, it may not be surprising that we see this effect.
Some social groups were affected more than others
Finally, we also used YouGov data to investigate how the pandemic and the blockade affect the well-being of different groups of people in the UK. We found that about half of the total impact of the pandemic and the closure is sociotropic, which means that everyone is equally affected.
Of the remaining half, we found acute negative effects on the wellbeing of older people, professionals, people living alone and women.
The well-being of older people had declined before the blockade began, most likely due to the greater threat that COVID-19 poses to older age groups. Increasing social isolation, loneliness and boredom after the ban can have disproportionately affected older groups and people living alone.
For small business owners and employees, economic uncertainties related to closings of retail stores and employee holidays may have had a disproportionate impact on wellbeing.
And it is clear that barring women was particularly difficult, often because additional childcare and home teaching tasks were not shared equally.
However, we also found positive effects for people with low socioeconomic status (SES), especially for men. We suspect that this reflects the income support provided to these people. The following figure shows how life satisfaction among three groups with low SES (skilled and unskilled and underemployed) increased during the closure, according to YouGov data.
Low SES men are one of the groups most at risk of attempting suicide. The relatively good mental health outcomes for this group during the closure could explain the somewhat unexpected reduction in suicides observed in some countries during the pandemic.
Search data also show a possible connection between income support and suicide rates. The following figure shows international addiction trends for suicidal thoughts during the pandemic closure period. India and South Africa, two countries that have introduced bans with minimal social support mechanisms, are clear outliers with rapidly increasing suicide rates.
Much of the world reopens, but in the event of a second wave of viruses, additional locks may be required. While there are many factors to consider when deciding whether to block, the impact on mental health is not easy. Our research suggests that closures adversely affect some groups, but also have the potential to address some of the negative effects of the pandemic on mental health.
Mark Fabian is a research associate in public policy at the University of Cambridge, Roberto Foa is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the University of Cambridge, and Sam Gilbert is an affiliated researcher for public policy at the University of Cambridge. This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.