People who followed Covid rules now have worse mental health, survey finds

The researchers found that people with ‘communal’ personalities were more likely to follow the rules – and to experience worse mental health after the pandemic was over

28th November 2023 about a 4 minute read
“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." Dr Marley Willegers, research officer, Bangor University

People who adhered to the Covid lockdown rules the most strictly have the worst mental health today, research from Bangor University has found.

The Bangor academics also found that people with “communal” personalities – that is, those who are more caring, sensitive and aware of others’ needs – followed the lockdown protocols more rigorously than others.

People with “agentic” personalities – those who are more independent, more competitive and like to have control over their lives – were least likely to follow the rules closely, they found.

The former group are now the most likely to be suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, the researchers said.

The fear of catching Covid proved both an advantage and disadvantage, the research, led by Dr Marley Willegers, found. “While increasing individuals’ worry of infection can effectively drive compliance, it also has negative consequences on people’s wellbeing and recovery,” they said.

Higher levels of compliance predicted lower levels of current wellbeing

The study involved more than 1700 people, recruited through Healthwise Wales, who were asked earlier this year to answer questions about their personality traits and their attitudes to Covid and behaviour during the first lockdown (March-September 2020). The researchers also questioned 230 people who were friends or family of those involved in the study, to cross-check respondents’ recollections of their behaviour with others who knew them well.

They categorised each person in relation to two types of personality trait – those who are more focused on what affects them (agentic personalities) and those who are more focused on what affects others (communal personalities). In general, the former were less likely to have complied with Covid rules, except where they felt under personal threat of infection. Communal personalities were less likely to improve their compliance with health advice as the threat of infection increased, however, possibly as a result of taking personal risks to help others.

The researchers found that regardless of personality, higher levels of compliance with Covid rules during the pandemic (March-September 2020) predicted lower current levels of wellbeing (Feb-March 2023). In other words, the more people complied with Covid rules during the pandemic, the worse their wellbeing emerged in the aftermath.

Willegers, a research officer 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,” he said.

“Without this, certain personality types have retained infection prevention behaviour and anxiety that undermines their mental wellbeing.”

Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, a thinktank, said that the continuing poor mental health of people who followed the rules was “deeply disturbing.”

He added: “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.”

The mental health legacy of the pandemic continues

There has been a suggestion that the steep rise in demand for NHS psychological and psychiatric services in the past three years is a consequence of the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health.

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.”

Willegers said that future government health advertising campaigns designed to change people’s behaviour should factor in the different personality types in the population: “Campaigns need to highlight the personal costs and benefits involved, not just people’s responsibility to others.”

FCC Insight

The finding that communally-minded people were more likely to follow lockdown rules than individually-minded people is not entirely surprising. The researchers’ discovery that compliance with lockdown rules is associated with worse mental health well after the pandemic has ended is more startling, though it is hard to tease out causation. It may be that people who are more communally-minded may in general be more likely to experience poor mental health, or it may be that both compliance and poor mental health were driven by an independent factor, such as having to care for vulnerable family members. We also can’t be sure whether it was the pandemic itself, or the experience of lockdown, that has led to rising rates of mental ill-health in the population at large. There is much here for future researchers to explore.