This week UK citizens are adjusting to the easing of Covid-19 lockdown measures, announced on Sunday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a shift in the message from “Stay at home” to “Stay alert”.
This was much to the disappointment of behavioural scientists, who have strongly advocated the need for clearly specifying behaviours that are required from citizens to control the spread of Covid-19, since we know that people are far more likely to carry out behaviours when they understand exactly what (and why) they are being asked to do.
The uncertainty and ambiguity of these messages are taking their toll on UK citizens, who have reported heightened experiences of anxiety, depression and stress in the early weeks of the lockdown.
As the lead health psychologist on the Covid-19 Psychological Research Consortium Study, I am concerned with how people regulate their behaviour to meet social distancing guidelines and the impact of these efforts on mental health.
The Covid-19 PRCS is a longitudinal, multi-country study that is assessing the psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the general population. We are a team of psychologists and academics at the Universities of Sheffield and Ulster in the UK. So far, we have surveyed a representative sample (2,025 people) of the UK population in two waves – first in March 2020 and then again in April 2020 – to assess the continuing impact of the lockdown on mental health.
As well as recording how people are feeling and behaving, our survey also measures a wide range of factors that impact upon behaviour and mental health. For example, we are interested in people’s political and religious beliefs, whether they have lost income as a result of Covid-19, how many people they live with and what (private) space they have access to. All these aspects of life tend to have an impact on the way people behave and the reasons why they behave as they do.
The findings of our survey have provided some fascinating insights into the drivers of human behaviour and the impact that the lockdown has had on mental health. The first few weeks of lockdown saw a peak in rates of anxiety and depression, which reduced over time as people adjusted to the lockdown conditions.
The groups we found who were struggling most with their mental well-being were those who were younger, had children in the home, lost income because of the outbreak or had preexisting health conditions.
These groups will continue to be more vulnerable and may require special attention in terms of providing support during the lockdown to cope with the extra strain of these risk factors. Another member of the Covid-19 PRCS team has led an investigation of behaviour and mental health in young people in the UK, aged 13-24, and uncovered insights into how our younger population are coping in the lockdown.
It may come as little surprise to learn that more than half of young men aged 19-24 have breached the UK’s lockdown rules and one in five men aged 19-21 have been dispersed, arrested, fined or taken home by police for breaking the rules – compared with just one in 10 young women of the same age. Of course, the Covid-19 outbreak has had disproportionate impacts on the health and well-being of specific groups in society all over the world that require our particular and urgent attention.
Figures presented in the UK highlight daily that it is the poorest and most marginalised in our society that are faring the worst, a process labelled by Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, as the “slow burn of inequality” exposed by epidemics.
In India, it seems that underprivileged migrant workers, rendered homeless and unable to travel to their home villages for support and health care, have become vulnerable to Covid-19. In terms of mental health, the Covid-19 PRCS provides evidence that more women than men are experiencing clinical levels of generalised anxiety during the outbreak.
This may well be related to extra burdens placed upon women by childcare and housework during the lockdown. It has been widely reported that there have been exponential increases in domestic violence and abuse of women across the globe, compounded by lockdowns that have rendered women isolated and powerless to escape their abuser.
Indeed, UN Women consider that violence against women is operating as a “shadow pandemic” to Covid-19. I am working with two Indian colleagues from the University of Delhi and Tilburg University in the Netherlands on a research programme that will explore the impact of Covid-19 on victimisation, violence and abuse on women in India, with a specific focus on investigating the increasing cases of domestic violence.
This research will also investigate the challenges faced by NGOs, women’s organisations and community feminist interventionists in dealing with cases of domestic violence during Covid-19. We aim to generate a gender sensitive country-wide response strategy for addressing the increase in the violence against women. There are far-reaching impacts on vulnerable groups around the world and it is important that research focuses on mitigating the inevitable consequences in the months and years following this global crisis.
The Covid-19 PRCS will continue to explore these and many more issues over the next 12 or so months, in the UK and across the world (we have partners in Ireland, Spain and Argentina) to see how citizens cope not just with the immediate difficulties of lock down, but with the transition into a “new normal”. It is likely that this outbreak will leave a significant legacy on human well-being.
The writer is in the department of psychology, University of Sheffield, UK