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Research highlights mental health impact of lockdown as some people feel more ‘hopeless’ than first-time prisoners

Study found activities which “enrich prisoners’ lives” and “help them cope with confinement” were less common in lockdown

Some people in lockdown feel more “hopeless” than first-time prisoners highlighting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, according to new research.

Men and women in lockdown were also “significantly less” engaged in a range of daily activities than prisoners, based on the study led by Professor Mandeep K. Dhami from Middlesex University’s Department of Psychology.

The researchers compared the experience of 750 people in lockdown in the UK and California in April 2020 against the experience of 573 convicted criminals who were sent to prison for the first time in both regions before the pandemic.

"It is important people who are struggling with their mental health during the lockdown seek help from professionals and support services," Professor Mandeep K.Dhami, Professor in Decision Psychology.

All groups were asked the same questions about their activities (e.g., education, work, exercise), social contact, thoughts about missing freedom, sex, family/friends, needing control, and fear of attack, feelings of happiness and hopelessness relative to before lockdown or prison, and rule-breaking (accusations of disobeying lockdown rules or charges of prison misconduct).

The research paper concluded: “People in lockdown in both regions were significantly less engaged in a range of daily activities than first-time prisoners.

“Additionally, in both regions, people in lockdown reported feeling more hopeless than first-time prisoners.

“Although governments introducing lockdown policies do not intend to punish their citizens as courts do when sending convicted offenders to prison, such policies can have unintended adverse consequences. Psychological parallels can be drawn between the two forms of confinement.”

Professor Dhami said: “When the first lockdown began, some people felt that it was similar to imprisonment and even ex-prisoners drew those parallels.

“There’s a sense in lockdown that you’ve lost your freedom and control over your life due to the restrictions imposed on your movement and physical contact with others, as well as the fact that you can’t enjoy some of things that you used to such as going to a restaurant.

“There’s a lot of research on people’s experiences of lockdown but it typically does not use a yardstick or benchmark to measure such experiences.

“By comparing people in lockdown with first-time prisoners we used an extreme comparison and found that in some ways people in lockdown fared worse.

“Our findings, of greater hopelessness in lockdown, were compatible with many other studies around the world showing people in lockdown were having increased rates of mental distress."

People in lockdown thought significantly less often about missing their freedom, family and friends than first-time prisoners, according to the research.

But the study found activities which “enrich prisoners’ lives” and “help them cope with confinement” were less prevalent in lockdown.

Those in lockdown either worked or exercised, whereas first-time prisoners were more active as they worked, studied, exercised regularly and attended self-help programs.

Prof Dhami, who has researched how prisoners adjust to their confinement, also made predictions about the potential impact of continued lockdowns.

She said: “As the lockdowns continue, people will eventually adapt to their situation and although this can help them to feel more positive and increase their wellbeing, it may also result in greater difficulties in readjusting to life after the pandemic ends.

“This may be particularly true so for those who have been isolating or shielding for long periods of time.

“The prison literature suggests that in such circumstances, individuals may find the prospect of freedom and reintegration into society traumatic, and so we might observe another wave of mental distress associated with the end of long periods of lockdown. We should be prepared for this.”

The research - Are People Experiencing the ‘Pains of Imprisonment’ During the COVID-19 Lockdown? - was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Leeds University Business School and published in Frontiers.

For help and resources on how to improve your mental health during the lockdown visit NHS Every Mind Matters

Learn more about studying psychology at Middlesex University

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