The lifting of lockdown restrictions and the subsequent return to schools, workplaces and social events could trigger heightened levels of stress and anxiety for many people, UK mental health charities and experts have said.
They say some, particularly those with mental health concerns, will be worried or anxious about the readjustment required by the lifting of lockdown restrictions as set out in the government’s gradual roadmap for reopening England.
Dr Tine Van Bortel, a senior research associate in public health at the University of Cambridge, said: “Lockdown has given people with mental health conditions like anxiety and PTSD permission to stay at home, and knowing that at some point you’ll have to go out again can actually trigger stress and anxiety.”
Rosie Weatherley, an information content manager at Mind, said: “Some of us might have found there were some unexpected plus points to lockdown – and therefore feel uneasy or anxious at the prospect of it being lifted. For example, we may be worried about ‘normality’ resuming, or not wanting to return to a faster pace with busier daily lives, and less downtime to ourselves.”
She said it was “really important” for government and employers to provide empathy and support for those who need it “beyond lockdown lifting”.
From 29 March, outdoor gatherings of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, will be able to meet in parks or gardens, and 21 June is the prospective date on which all legal limits on mixing could be removed.
Laura Peters, the head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness, welcomed the relaxing of restrictions and the subsequent reduction in social isolation, but said: “It’s important not to assume that everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone will have a different set of circumstances to navigate as restrictions start to ease, and it’s a natural human response to feel anxious in certain situations or during times of uncertainty.”
Even among groups such as young people who are broadly optimistic about lockdown ending, concerns remain. A YoungMinds survey conducted in January found that while 79% of young people agreed that their mental health would start to improve when most restrictions were lifted, some were concerned that the end of the lockdown would happen too quickly and result in further lockdowns in future.
“Again and again, young people said they felt like they were experiencing ‘Groundhog Day’, and above all they wish for an end to a cycle of freedoms followed by restrictions,” says the report.
Even if the government’s roadmap for England proves sufficiently cautious, research indicates that wider issues around the pandemic are contributing to anxiety and negativity as the end of lockdown grows nearer. According to the most recent Covid-19 social study conducted by UCL researchers, 57% of respondents were concerned about Covid cases increasing and 53% were worried about a lack of adherence to social distancing.
Economic concerns also remain prevalent, with about one in three people (37%) concerned about a recession and rises in unemployment (33%). For many, the government furlough scheme has represented an unprecedented social safety net. In January the total number of UK workers on furlough rose to 4.7 million.
Experts were particularly keen to stress that while the relaxing of restrictions would primarily be seen as cause for celebration, it would not be taken as such universally. They also said the uncertainty and disruption caused by a significant shift such as the end of lockdown could negatively affect people with no prior history of mental health issues.
Dr Emilios Lemonatis, of the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, said: “A lot of people with anxiety disorders have felt very comfortable at home because it’s meant being in an environment over which they can exert more control. They’re potentially going to be very distrusting of the new environment and will therefore require a lot of support to reorient themselves in the new world.”
Dr Ganga Shreedhar, an assistant professor at the LSE department of psychological and behavioural science, said: “Covid has been such a disruption from how we normally live our lives that people have had to put in time and effort to adapt to the new normal … In anticipation of restrictions lifting, people might find themselves experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety if work commitments or time constrains no longer allow them to keep good routines in place.”