A Lockdown Impacts Mental Health – But What Hurts and Helps People Get Through It?

By Andrew Gloster, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Basel

new study just published in PLOS ONE examines what hurts and what helps people in "lockdown," using data from across the world. Rhonda Merwin, PhD, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, was a co-author.

Results showed that 10 percent of respondents languished with low levels of mental health, including negative affect, stress, depressive behaviors, and pessimistic view of society. Of crucial importance, this study also systematically examined factors known to impact mental health. Two factors consistently predicted worse outcomes: loss of financial income compared to pre-lockdown levels and not having access to basic supplies. Factors that were consistently associated with better outcomes included:

  • social support
  • higher education level
  • greater psychological flexibility (the ability to have difficult thoughts and feelings, without needing to get rid of these experiences or having them control one’s actions, and pursue personal values)


At the outset of COVID-19 pandemic, little was known about the impact of population-wide governmental lockdowns. What was known was taken from circumscribed quarantines of small groups of people. On one hand, such drastic changes in daily routines can be detrimental to mental health. On the other hand, because the entire population was more or less equally affected, it remained unclear whether this impact would occur, said Dr. Andrew Gloster, co-lead author of the study.

With this aim in mind, the international research team surveyed 9,565 people from 78 countries and 18 languages. Outcomes assessed were stress, depression, affect and wellbeing. Predictors included country, sociodemographic factors, lockdown characteristics and social and psychological factors.

Public Health Implications

The international research team found that 10 percent of the sample was languishing from low levels of mental health, a figure consistent with other research groups. However, the team found that another 50 percent had only moderate mental health, which has previously been found to be a risk for further complications.

By simultaneously examining risk and resilience factors, the research team found factors of clear importance for the public health. Given the continued fluid developments in the pandemic and its economic consequences, attention to people’s mental health remains important. “Public health initiatives should target people without social support and those whose finances worsen as a result of the lockdown. Based on these results, interventions that promote psychological flexibility offer promise in helping mitigate the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns,” said Gloster.

Do Countries Differ?

Overall the 78 surveyed countries were largely similar in their response styles. Although no country emerged as either consistently better or worse across all outcomes, some differences emerged. Hong Kong and Turkey had more stress than other countries; the United States reported more depressive symptoms; and well-being was lowest in Hong Kong and Italy. Favorable outcomes were noted for participants in Portugal, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.  

Read the full article.