Jeremy Bentham speaks…

“Create all the happiness you are able to create, remove all the misery you are able to remove...”

Dr Daisy Fancourt’s pandemic survey suggests people are trying their best in a challenging time

Illustration to represent lockdown - the NHS rainbow and logo, a mother and daughter homeschooling and a person delivering food on a bike

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Infection rates and fatalities tell only part of the story about how people are affected by a pandemic.

When countries started going into lockdown, I suspected that this would present a unique opportunity to explore social factors such as isolation, loneliness and engagement. So we created a survey to capture the broader psychological and social experiences people might have, and are producing weekly reports to help people understand how the pandemic is affecting society in the UK.

At the time of writing, we’re finishing off week 19 of data collection with more than 70,000 participants.

Our complex recruitment strategy involved general media and advertising but also more targeted approaches to specific groups who were less likely to respond. We’ve ended up with a well-stratified sample telling us what’s happening to people from all walks of life.

Data and weekly reports are sent to Public Health England, the Cabinet Office, the World Health Organization and dozens of organisations across the UK who are providing support to individuals. As the UK eases restrictions and returns to a more normal life, we anticipate more attention, funding and support will be invested into things like mental health.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Infection rates and fatalities tell only part of the story about how people are affected by a pandemic.

When countries started going into lockdown, I suspected that this would present a unique opportunity to explore social factors such as isolation, loneliness and engagement. So we created a survey to capture the broader psychological and social experiences people might have, and are producing weekly reports to help people understand how the pandemic is affecting society in the UK.

At the time of writing, we’re finishing off week 19 of data collection with more than 70,000 participants.

Our complex recruitment strategy involved general media and advertising but also more targeted approaches to specific groups who were less likely to respond. We’ve ended up with a well-stratified sample telling us what’s happening to people from all walks of life.

Data and weekly reports are sent to Public Health England, the Cabinet Office, the World Health Organization and dozens of organisations across the UK who are providing support to individuals. As the UK eases restrictions and returns to a more normal life, we anticipate more attention, funding and support will be invested into things like mental health.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Infection rates and fatalities tell only part of the story about how people are affected by a pandemic.

When countries started going into lockdown, I suspected that this would present a unique opportunity to explore social factors such as isolation, loneliness and engagement. So we created a survey to capture the broader psychological and social experiences people might have, and are producing weekly reports to help people understand how the pandemic is affecting society in the UK.

At the time of writing, we’re finishing off week 19 of data collection with more than 70,000 participants.

Our complex recruitment strategy involved general media and advertising but also more targeted approaches to specific groups who were less likely to respond. We’ve ended up with a well-stratified sample telling us what’s happening to people from all walks of life.

Data and weekly reports are sent to Public Health England, the Cabinet Office, the World Health Organization and dozens of organisations across the UK who are providing support to individuals. As the UK eases restrictions and returns to a more normal life, we anticipate more attention, funding and support will be invested into things like mental health.

“16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic”
“16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic”
“16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic”

While we’ve been careful not to perpetuate the myth that people are finding lockdown fun – for the majority it has been anything but – our survey has revealed some pandemic positives.

Volunteering

For example, we’ve found a marked rise in people wanting to volunteer. For some, this means getting involved in formal schemes, such as driving healthcare workers and delivering medications. The NHS Responders app even had to be temporarily shut down as it was overwhelmed with applicants. Lots of volunteers are donating blood, taking part in clinical trials or social studies like ours.

Most significantly, we’ve seen an increase in mutual aid activities such as supporting your neighbours. 16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic.

Even groups who don’t typically volunteer as much, people with chronic health conditions or those with mental illness, are getting involved in their communities. There has been a real sense of many people feeling that they want to step up and play their part.

I wasn’t that surprised because when we look back at previous global disasters such as world wars, there have been similar reports of community spirit, cohesion and looking after each other. Suddenly there’s something that’s so big, it takes precedence over all the smaller things that people worried about and that divided them before.

Yet at the same time, we had news of the terrible death of George Floyd, which highlights that this has been more of a superficial coming together and that there are still deep divisions within society.

Early on, in both government and media, there was a lot of talk about being “all in this together” and COVID-19 being “the great equaliser”. Through our research, we’ve debunked this myth, instead aligning the pandemic to the idea of the same storm but different boats. Yes, we are technically all going through this together, but people’s experiences have been radically different.

A real challenge will be whether we can keep a feeling of social cohesion throughout the easing of lockdown and beyond.

Creativity

Our survey also looks at arts and creative engagement and how that benefits mental health, physical health and social functioning. 95% of people have been drawing on creativity in some way. Listening to music and reading fiction are obvious choices, but one in five people have also been singing during lockdown. The virtual choir has come of age!

Last year, I wrote a paper showing that you can get very similar emotional benefits from virtual cultural experiences to those you can get from the real thing. We’ve also seen arts organisations adapting to deliver digital and online opportunities for people. This chimes with evidence from world wars when there was a huge outpouring of creativity.

It also affirms something that we know scientifically: the arts are not the frivolous cherry on the top of the cake in our society but are fundamental to human existence. It’s significant that in the throes of global disaster, the arts do not disappear but for most they become an even more vital coping mechanism.

However, these industries have been hit hard by lockdown. I worry that if they become financially unviable, people won’t have access to these coping resources that give them routine and stability. If places such as libraries and community spaces are not able to re-open, this will have major mental health implications.

The future

Looking ahead, I am leading COVID-MINDS, an international network of more than 100 longitudinal studies on mental health during the pandemic. We’re joining forces to look at comparisons of the impact of the pandemic and what this means for the future. Inevitably, there will be another pandemic and we need to make sure that we’re better prepared on the mental health front.

Dr Daisy Fancourt is Associate Professor of Psychobiology and Epidemiology, Faculty of Population Health Science.

Discover more: covidsocialstudy.org and covidminds.org

Illustration Michelle Thompson

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

While we’ve been careful not to perpetuate the myth that people are finding lockdown fun – for the majority it has been anything but – our survey has revealed some pandemic positives.

Volunteering

For example, we’ve found a marked rise in people wanting to volunteer. For some, this means getting involved in formal schemes, such as driving healthcare workers and delivering medications. The NHS Responders app even had to be temporarily shut down as it was overwhelmed with applicants. Lots of volunteers are donating blood, taking part in clinical trials or social studies like ours.

Most significantly, we’ve seen an increase in mutual aid activities such as supporting your neighbours. 16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic.

Even groups who don’t typically volunteer as much, people with chronic health conditions or those with mental illness, are getting involved in their communities. There has been a real sense of many people feeling that they want to step up and play their part.

I wasn’t that surprised because when we look back at previous global disasters such as world wars, there have been similar reports of community spirit, cohesion and looking after each other. Suddenly there’s something that’s so big, it takes precedence over all the smaller things that people worried about and that divided them before.

Yet at the same time, we had news of the terrible death of George Floyd, which highlights that this has been more of a superficial coming together and that there are still deep divisions within society.

Early on, in both government and media, there was a lot of talk about being “all in this together” and COVID-19 being “the great equaliser”. Through our research, we’ve debunked this myth, instead aligning the pandemic to the idea of the same storm but different boats. Yes, we are technically all going through this together, but people’s experiences have been radically different.

A real challenge will be whether we can keep a feeling of social cohesion throughout the easing of lockdown and beyond.

Creativity

Our survey also looks at arts and creative engagement and how that benefits mental health, physical health and social functioning. 95% of people have been drawing on creativity in some way. Listening to music and reading fiction are obvious choices, but one in five people have also been singing during lockdown. The virtual choir has come of age!

Last year, I wrote a paper showing that you can get very similar emotional benefits from virtual cultural experiences to those you can get from the real thing. We’ve also seen arts organisations adapting to deliver digital and online opportunities for people. This chimes with evidence from world wars when there was a huge outpouring of creativity.

It also affirms something that we know scientifically: the arts are not the frivolous cherry on the top of the cake in our society but are fundamental to human existence. It’s significant that in the throes of global disaster, the arts do not disappear but for most they become an even more vital coping mechanism.

However, these industries have been hit hard by lockdown. I worry that if they become financially unviable, people won’t have access to these coping resources that give them routine and stability. If places such as libraries and community spaces are not able to re-open, this will have major mental health implications.

The future

Looking ahead, I am leading COVID-MINDS, an international network of more than 100 longitudinal studies on mental health during the pandemic. We’re joining forces to look at comparisons of the impact of the pandemic and what this means for the future. Inevitably, there will be another pandemic and we need to make sure that we’re better prepared on the mental health front.

Dr Daisy Fancourt is Associate Professor of Psychobiology and Epidemiology, Faculty of Population Health Science.

Discover more: covidsocialstudy.org and covidminds.org

Illustration Michelle Thompson

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

While we’ve been careful not to perpetuate the myth that people are finding lockdown fun – for the majority it has been anything but – our survey has revealed some pandemic positives.

Volunteering

For example, we’ve found a marked rise in people wanting to volunteer. For some, this means getting involved in formal schemes, such as driving healthcare workers and delivering medications. The NHS Responders app even had to be temporarily shut down as it was overwhelmed with applicants. Lots of volunteers are donating blood, taking part in clinical trials or social studies like ours.

Most significantly, we’ve seen an increase in mutual aid activities such as supporting your neighbours. 16% of people have done much more volunteering than they did pre-pandemic.

Even groups who don’t typically volunteer as much, people with chronic health conditions or those with mental illness, are getting involved in their communities. There has been a real sense of many people feeling that they want to step up and play their part.

I wasn’t that surprised because when we look back at previous global disasters such as world wars, there have been similar reports of community spirit, cohesion and looking after each other. Suddenly there’s something that’s so big, it takes precedence over all the smaller things that people worried about and that divided them before.

Yet at the same time, we had news of the terrible death of George Floyd, which highlights that this has been more of a superficial coming together and that there are still deep divisions within society.

Early on, in both government and media, there was a lot of talk about being “all in this together” and COVID-19 being “the great equaliser”. Through our research, we’ve debunked this myth, instead aligning the pandemic to the idea of the same storm but different boats. Yes, we are technically all going through this together, but people’s experiences have been radically different.

A real challenge will be whether we can keep a feeling of social cohesion throughout the easing of lockdown and beyond.

Creativity

Our survey also looks at arts and creative engagement and how that benefits mental health, physical health and social functioning. 95% of people have been drawing on creativity in some way. Listening to music and reading fiction are obvious choices, but one in five people have also been singing during lockdown. The virtual choir has come of age!

Last year, I wrote a paper showing that you can get very similar emotional benefits from virtual cultural experiences to those you can get from the real thing. We’ve also seen arts organisations adapting to deliver digital and online opportunities for people. This chimes with evidence from world wars when there was a huge outpouring of creativity.

It also affirms something that we know scientifically: the arts are not the frivolous cherry on the top of the cake in our society but are fundamental to human existence. It’s significant that in the throes of global disaster, the arts do not disappear but for most they become an even more vital coping mechanism.

However, these industries have been hit hard by lockdown. I worry that if they become financially unviable, people won’t have access to these coping resources that give them routine and stability. If places such as libraries and community spaces are not able to re-open, this will have major mental health implications.

The future

Looking ahead, I am leading COVID-MINDS, an international network of more than 100 longitudinal studies on mental health during the pandemic. We’re joining forces to look at comparisons of the impact of the pandemic and what this means for the future. Inevitably, there will be another pandemic and we need to make sure that we’re better prepared on the mental health front.

Dr Daisy Fancourt is Associate Professor of Psychobiology and Epidemiology, Faculty of Population Health Science.

Discover more: covidsocialstudy.org and covidminds.org

Illustration Michelle Thompson

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.