Effect of lockdown on mental health in Australia: evidence from a natural experiment analysing a longitudinal probability sample survey

Peter Butterworth, Stefanie Schurer, Trong Anh Trinh, Esperanza Vera-Toscano, Mark Wooden*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    79 Citations (Scopus)


    Background: Many studies have examined population mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic but have been unable to isolate the direct effect of lockdowns. The aim of this study was to examine changes in the mental health of Australians aged 15 years and older during the COVID-19 pandemic using a quasi-experimental design to disentangle the lockdown effect. Methods: We analysed data from ten annual waves (2011–20) of the longitudinal Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey to identify changes in the mental health of respondents from the pre-COVID-19 period (2011–19) to the COVID-19 period (2020). Difference-in-differences models were used to compare these changes between respondents in the state of Victoria who were exposed to lockdown at the time of the 2020 interviews (treatment group) and respondents living elsewhere in Australia (who were living relatively free of restrictions; control group). The models included state, year (survey wave), and person-specific fixed effects. Mental health was assessed using the five-item Mental Health Inventory (MHI-5), which was included in the self-complete questionnaire administered during the survey. Findings: The analysis sample comprised 151 583 observations obtained from 20 839 individuals from 2011 to 2020. The treatment group included 3568 individuals with a total of 37 578 observations (34 010 in the pre-COVID-19 and 3568 in the COVID-19 period), and the control group included 17 271 individuals with 114 005 observations (102 867 in the pre-COVID-19 and 11 138 in the COVID-19 period). Mean MHI-5 scores did not differ between the treatment group (72·9 points [95% CI 72·8–73·2]) and control group (73·2 points [73·1–73·3]) in the pre-COVID-19 period. In the COVID-19 period, decreased mean scores were seen in both the treatment group (69·6 points [69·0–70·2]) and control group (70·8 points [70·5–71·2]). Difference-in-differences estimation showed a small but statistically significant effect of lockdown on MHI-5 scores, with greater decline for residents of Victoria in 2020 than for those in the rest of Australia (difference –1·4 points [95% CI –1·7 to –1·2]). Stratified analyses showed that this lockdown effect was larger for females (−2·2 points [–2·6 to –1·7]) than for males (−0·6 [–0·8 to –0·5]), and even larger for women in couples with children younger than 15 years (−4·4 points [–5·0 to –3·8]), and for females who lived in flats or apartments (−4·1 points [–5·4 to –2·8]) or semi-detached houses, terraced houses, or townhouses (−4·8 points [–6·4 to –3·2]). Interpretation: The imposition of lockdowns was associated with a modest negative change in overall population mental health. The results suggest that the mental health effects of lockdowns differ by population subgroups and for some might have exaggerated existing inequalities in mental health. Although lockdowns have been an important public health tool in suppressing community transmission of COVID-19, more research is needed into the potential psychosocial impacts of such interventions to inform their future use. Funding: US National Institutes of Health.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)e427-e436
    JournalThe Lancet Public Health
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - May 2022


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