People who stuck by Covid lockdown rules the most strictly have the worst mental health today, research has found.
Those who followed the restrictions most closely when the pandemic hit are the most likely to be suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, academics at Bangor University have found.
They identified that people with “communal” personalities – who are more caring, sensitive and aware of others’ needs – adhered the most rigorously with the lockdown protocols which Boris Johnson and senior medics and scientists recommended.
However, people with “agentic” personalities – who are more independent, more competitive and like to have control over their lives – were least likely to exhibit those behaviours.
“The more individuals complied with health advice during lockdown, the worse their wellbeing post-lockdown”, concluded Dr Marley Willegers and colleagues.
The fear of catching Covid proved both an upside and a downside, they found. “While increasing individuals’ worry of infection can effectively drive compliance, it also has negative consequences on people’s wellbeing and recovery”, they said.
The researchers based their findings on a study of how compliant with the rules 1,729 people in Wales were during the first UK-wide lockdown in March-September 2020 and measures of stress, anxiety and depression found among them during February-May this year.
“Communal” types displayed the highest levels of continuing disturbance to their mental wellbeing. However, “agentic” people had been able to “bounce back” better from lockdown mode.
Willegers, an academic at Bangor University’s institute for the psychology of elite performance, said some people found it hard to make the transition from receiving regular exhortations about following public health advice during the pandemic to no advice when lockdown ended.
“Throughout the pandemic messaging campaigns were designed to ensure people continued to follow the rules. But there was no messaging campaign as we came out of the pandemic to help everyone safely transition back to normality.
“Without this, certain personality types have retained infection prevention behaviour and anxiety that undermines their mental wellbeing”, he added.
The enduringly poor mental health being experienced by people who adhered to the rules is “deeply disturbing”, the Centre for Mental Health thinktank said.
“The finding that people who complied with pandemic restrictions are more likely to have poorer mental health three years on is deeply disturbing.
“The fear, loss and trauma created by the pandemic are having a lasting impact on many people’s mental health. For some, this may have been exacerbated by the loss of social solidarity from seeing others not complying with the same restrictions”, said Andy Bell, its chief executive.
Experts say the widespread damage Covid did to mental health in Britain is the main reason demand for NHS psychological and psychiatric services has soared in recent years.
Mark Winstanley, the chief executive of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, said: “The early days of the pandemic were characterised by significant disruption, uncertainty and a lack of control, factors which can all fuel anxiety and low mood.
“It’s important to recognise that those who took the greatest steps to protect themselves and others have seen an enduring impact on their mental health.
“While many want to move on from the pandemic and life under lockdown, its legacy lives with many people to this day, as worries or concerns about our loved ones or the risks to our own health can’t be easily shaken off.”
Future government health advertising campaigns designed to change people’s behaviour should factor in the different personality types in the population, Willegers added.
“Campaigns need to highlight the personal costs and benefits involved, not just people’s responsibility to others”, he said.