Locked down in distress

Applied Institute for Research in Economics

Gastón Yalonetzky is a lecturer in Economics at Leeds University Business School. His current research focuses on distributional analysis, in particular the statistical operationalisation of concepts and ethical principles pertaining to human development, agency and capabilities, as well as distributional justice.  Peter Howley is Professor of Behavioral Economics at Leeds University Business School. His research focuses on: the economics of happiness, behavioural science, environmental and natural resource economics, agricultural economics, labour economics, and health and well-being.

Person wearing a facemask looking out of a window

We may not be quite out of the pandemic yet, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, thanks in great part to the successful vaccine rollout. Notwithstanding the good news, we cannot rule out viral pandemics in the future.

Therefore, it becomes important to assess both the costs as well as benefits of the different policy interventions taken to protect public health. Such efforts are an important endeavour, as it is only by ascertaining the full welfare consequences of decisions such as the imposition of lockdowns that we can begin to make more informed choices regarding the scope and nature of government intervention in response to this or indeed future pandemics.

In research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), we have been looking to quantify the reductions in mental health observed during the first lockdown period coupled with an exploration of the major reasons why people experienced such substantive increases in psychological distress. In doing so we employed a quasi-experimental approach (namely a differences-in-differences research design) to enable us to reliably quantify the increase in psychological distress observed during the first wave of the pandemic.

While all groups experienced substantive declines in mental health, it was notable that some groups were much more adversely impacted by the pandemic than others. Specifically, women, younger cohorts, migrants and BAME groups were those who witnessed the most substantive declines in mental health.

An open question pertains to the long-term impacts of such a shock for people’s mental health. For many groups, the mental distress experienced at various stages during the pandemic is much more keenly felt than many negative life events such as unemployment and divorce.

In addition to quantifying the overall impact, we also looked to establish what were the major factors behind the levels of psychological distress caused by the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly we found that health anxiety and social isolation played an important role. In comparison, financial worries were less important perhaps because of the levels of financial support that were made available during the initial stages of the pandemic. We also found that housing was an important factor as those living in denser households were much more likely to experience substantive increases in psychological distress. One possible explanation relates to crowding stress as people were more constrained to their homes than ever before.

In the next stage of our research, we are looking to establish whether the neighbourhood environment plays a role in shaping the degree to which people were negatively impacted during the pandemic. In the same way that people will have differential vulnerability according to individual characteristics, we also posit that there may be differential vulnerability according to their neighbourhood environment. In other words, we propose that the mental health impacts will depend not just on who you are but also on where you live.

We will be sharing our findings in a virtual workshop on Monday 4 April 2022. We welcome empirical papers on all countries and regions, though a focus on the UK is preferable. Please submit your paper to both Muhammad Waqas (M.Waqas9@bradford.ac.uk) and Gaston Yalonetzky (g.yalonetzky@leeds.ac.uk). The submission deadline is 28 February and decisions will be made by 10 March 2022.

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