What have we discovered about the psychological and social impacts of lockdown?
Writer: Lucy White
Editor: Marta Caldeira
Artist: Lia Bote
As lockdown was announced across the UK on 23rd March 2020, a UCL study into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures on our mental wellbeing was launched.
Currently ongoing, the study is led by UCL’s Dr Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor of psychobiology and epidemiology. According to their website, the aims of the study are to track patterns of mental health and loneliness in the UK, pinpoint at-risk groups, and identify activities that support mental wellbeing.
At the time of writing, the questionnaire-based study involved more than 70,000 adults in the UK. The study has been continuously recruiting, so the number of participants in the early stages was significantly smaller.
While it would be impossible to cover in appropriate depth the plethora of statistical information gathered since the study began, here are three key findings from the UCL COVID-19 Social Study.
Anxiety and depression
During the first week following the introduction of the first national lockdown, 22.6% of people showed moderate to severe anxiety and 21.5% showed moderate to severe depression. Although the exact statistics vary depending on the study, these levels are generally accepted to be significantly higher than normal. For example, according to data from the Office for National Statistics, only around 1 in 10 adults showed depressive symptoms before the pandemic (from July 2019 ‒ March 2020).
Although rates remained higher than the generally accepted norm, both anxiety and depression followed a downwards trajectory over the weeks of strict lockdown, suggesting that people were able to adapt reasonably well to the national lockdown and resulting social distancing measures.
Risk factors for higher rates of anxiety and depression were found to include being female, being younger, having a lower income, and living alone or with children. Interestingly, key workers reported similar levels of anxiety and depression when compared to others, with rates being slightly higher only in the first few weeks after the lockdown was introduced.
The study did deliver some cheerier news. People who partook in activities such as exercising, reading, gardening, arts, and spending time with friends and family showed reduced levels of depression and anxiety. This phenomenon is not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic and has been seen in other studies. A common theme in this study’s results has been the importance of human interaction, with people living with other adults generally faring better than those living alone.
Confidence in the Government has shifted throughout the pandemic. In England, after a brief rise following the introduction of national lockdown, confidence decreased gradually. It then stabilised in the weeks following the easing of lockdown. The infamous escapades of Dominic Cummings in May ‒ when Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor appeared to break lockdown rules by travelling 425 km while his wife showed COVID-19 symptoms ‒ correlated with a sharp decline. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of people who do not have confidence in the Government has increased from 25% to 56% since the study began. The picture is less bleak in Scotland and Wales, where confidence in the devolved governments has been substantially higher since late April.
Similarly, although there had been a gradual decrease in total compliance with social distancing rules since lockdown began, this decrease grew following the reports that one of the most senior government advisors was taking liberties with the rules.
One concern that caused many people anxiety at the beginning of the pandemic was the possibility of losing access to essentials, such as food, water and electricity. After several weeks of memes about panic-buying toilet paper, confidence in accessing essentials increased following the imposition of lockdown, from 20% in March to 91% in mid-June. This has decreased again since August, to around 85%.
Although UCL’s study has not continuously tracked the effects of lockdown on people’s access to non-COVID-19-related healthcare, the survey dedicated a week to this issue. 39% of people reported having one or more barriers to accessing healthcare, 26% reported not seeking healthcare when they needed it even if it was available, and 20% didn’t contact their GP when they normally would have done. People with a diagnosed mental health condition were almost twice as likely as those without to not report symptoms to a GP when they would have done before.
These statistics highlight an important side effect of social distancing measures. While attempting to mitigate the effects of the virus on people’s health and the already overburdened NHS, UCL’s study suggests that governments and healthcare providers should be wary of discouraging people from accessing healthcare during the pandemic.
Since March, UCL’s study has been critical in tracking the effects of lockdown and social distancing measures on the nation. While the study has noted differences in their findings for many different groups of people ‒ for example, between key workers and non-key workers ‒ their fortnightly reports did not begin stratifying results by ethnicity until week 32. As ethnicity has been identified as a risk factor for COVID-19, this seems like an oversight, although one that is now hopefully being rectified. Nonetheless, the study has provided a wealth of important information about the UK’s wellbeing during the pandemic.