In recent months, politicians, commentators, and policymakers have cautioned against imposing strict lockdowns on the grounds that they place heavy burdens on citizens' psychological health and well-being. The apparent benefits of lockdown in containing the novel coronavirus, it is argued, are accompanied by extensive "hidden" mental health costs including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
However, analysing a year of data on subjective well-being collected before, during, and after coronavirus outbreaks in different countries, we find the opposite to be true. The initial weeks of the pandemic saw a large rise in negative mood, seemingly driven by anxiety and health concerns. But lockdowns were associated with significant improvements in subjective w ell-being. In fact, in a time of pandemic, the single most effective action that governments can take to improve citizens' mental health is to introduce strict policies that succeed in containing the virus.
Life satisfaction increases under lockdown
Our first piece of evidence comes from an analysis of 50 weeks of data from YouGov’s Weekly Mood Tracker survey, covering a representative sample of the British public from June 2019 to June 2020. We find that the novel coronavirus outbreak in March had a strong negative effect on mood. Yet as soon as the lockdown was introduced, well-being significantly reverted back to baseline levels (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Affective Life Satisfaction, June 2019 to June 2020.
Notes: Mean scores by week, with 90% confidence intervals.
To test whether this pattern is unique to Great Britain, we turned to Google Trends, which provides data on internet search activity. By looking at internet searches for mental health topics such as anxiety, depression, boredom and apathy, we were able to compare the UK to a wider set of English-speaking countries.
Combining searches associated with poor mental health into an index of “negative affect”, we find that the pattern in the UK is replicated in other contexts. In country after country, there was a sharp increase in negative mood during initial outbreaks of novel coronavirus – but then a rapid recovery once lockdowns were introduced (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Negative Affect Google Search Index and Lockdowns: Cross-Country Comparisons.
Notes: Cross-country comparisons on the negative affect Google Trends index. All countries set relative to their pre-pandemic baseline period (January 15th to February 15th). Full lockdown indicated by white lines; partial lockdown indicated by grey lines.
This makes sense. In times of life-threatening crisis, people find security in decisive government action. Especially when that action is effective, as is the case with the package of lockdowns and income support employed in the UK.
Well-being equality improves under lockdown
In our working paper , LINK we test these results for robustness with a variety of statistical methods, including time-series and multilevel model analysis. We then turn to important nuances. Why did well-being improve under lockdown, and which groups benefited most? We return to the YouGov data for Great Britain to find out.
Consistent with the theory that it was the pandemic, rather than the lockdown, that depressed people’s well-being, we find that groups most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus – such as the elderly – experienced larger falls in positive mood. However, we were also surprised to find positive effects for some groups – in particular low socio-economic status individuals, such as unemployed and underemployed men (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Compression of Affective Well-Being Inequality in the UK: Low SES Groups.
Notes: Highlighted portions of lines indicate a statistically significant difference since March 5th, the date of the first diagnosed COVID-19 fatality. Percentile ranks are calculated by respondent for each survey week with a 10-week rolling smooth. 90\% confidence intervals shown in gray.
The observation that well-being inequalities fell during the pandemic seems initially surprising. However, it need not be. During the lockdown, high-income individuals and families were constrained in their ability to spend money on expensive goods and services, resulting in significant lifestyle adjustments. But for lower-income groups, it was a different story. Measures introduced during lockdown – including debt and rent forebearance, income-support, and welfare reform – very likely improved the situation of people living in economic precarity.
Explaining the Suicide Paradox
This finding may help to explain one of the paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, suicide rates have fallen rather than increased. In Japan, for example, suicides in April 2020 were down 20% on 2019, reaching their lowest level in five years. Meanwhile, Google Trends shows a large drop in suicide-related search in many countries (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Trends in Searches Relating to Suicidal Ideation.
Notes: Rebased relative to mid-February as baseline by country.
Low SES males are one of the highest risk groups for successful suicide attempts, so their relatively good mental health outcomes during lockdown provide one explanation for the somewhat unexpected reduction in suicides.
This line of reasoning is supported by the outlier position of South Africa and India, which implemented lockdowns without comprehensive income support. Suicide-related searches in these countries, suggesting that economic assistance is critical to support mental health during the pandemic.
Rethinking mental health in times of pandemic
Contrary to widespread concerns, lockdowns seem to improve mental health rather than detract from it. They do so because the largest threat to personal health and mental security in a pandemic is the risk of illness. Lockdowns reduce this risk.
However, our findings suggest that governments must be cautious in winding down furlough and income support measures as we come out of lockdown. The initial shock of the pandemic is fading into a likely recession. The real mental health challenge may just be beginning.
Download the working paper 'Covid-19 and Subjective Well-Being: Separating the Effects of Lockdowns from the Pandemic' by Roberto Stefan Foa, Sam Gilbert, and Mark Fabian.
About the author
Dr Mark Fabian, Research Associate
Mark is a welfare economist working on the Measuring Well-Being project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. His research focuses on the epistemology and ethics of well-being metrics, especially how policymakers and citizens understand well-being, its measurement, and the legitimacy of well-being policy interventions. Learn more
About the author
Dr Roberto Foa, Assistant Professor in Politics and Public Policy
Roberto Stefan Foa is an Assistant Professor in Politics and Public Policy, Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy, and Director of the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research. Learn more