It’s no secret that women have fared pretty badly during lockdown.
Alongside the sharp increase in calls to domestic abuse helplines and disrupted access to abortion services at the beginning of the pandemic, women are also more likely to have lost their jobs during lockdown and be facing financial difficulty.
BAME women have dealt with this to the largest extent: research from the Fawcett Society published last week confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic has had a greater financial and psychological impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women.
Now, a new study by economists Lisa Spantig and Ben Etheridge at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex has revealed that the gender gap in mental wellbeing in the UK has “widened substantially” under lockdown.
Studies in the US have already charted this gap between the mental wellbeing of men and women in lockdown, but previously experts had largely cited economic factors as the chief reason why women were faring worse during the pandemic.
And while this latest study does acknowledge that economic factors have a role to play in this gap, Spantig explains that the new research showed that the biggest strain placed on the mental wellbeing of women in lockdown was feeling isolated and lonely.
“Before this study everyone thought it would be related to economic factors because we see that women need to work more at home, and they take more responsibility in terms of household work, but actually the largest factor contributing to the gender gap was loneliness,” she tells Stylist.
The research revealed that more than a third of British women have been experiencing loneliness in lockdown, with 34% saying they ‘sometimes’ feel lonely and 11% saying they ‘often’ feel lonely. The number of men struggling with feelings of loneliness in lockdown is considerably lower: 23% said they ‘sometimes’ felt lonely and only 6% said they ‘often’ do.
Spantig explains that, while there’s likely to be “several factors” at play here, this difference in the levels of loneliness between men and women can be primarily explained by the differences in their friendship groups pre-lockdown.
“What we looked into a bit more was the role of friendship groups,” she explains. “So those who had more close friends before the lockdown were also more likely to report loneliness after the onset of the lockdown. And we also see this pattern where women are more likely to report greater numbers of friends.”
The research, which was based on online interviews from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (a project which has allowed social scientists to track the mental states of the nation during lockdown), also revealed that the number of women experiencing at least one severe underlying mental health problem has risen 16% in lockdown (from 11% to 27%), compared to an 11% rise in men (from 7% to 18%).
So what could this gender gap in mental wellbeing across the UK mean for life after the pandemic? According to Spantig, it could lead to greater inequality in other areas of society.
“We are very interested to see whether this increase in the gender gap is temporary or permanent,” she says.
“Mental health problems have been an increasing cause for sick leave – so people not going to work or even dropping out of the labour force – and if we have this increase in the gender gap for mental wellbeing, you might also think that women might drop out of the labour force to a bigger extent.”
She continues: “There’s also quite a lot of caring responsibilities associated with someone having mental health problems in the family, so there’s also people dropping out of the labour force to take care of others – and we have reason to believe that those people are also more likely to be women.
“So overall the widening gap of mental wellbeing can also lead to an increase of the gender gap in other domains.”
Coping with loneliness
If you’re feeling lonely at the moment, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. The coronavirus lockdown has left many people feeling isolated – but reaching out and talking about how you’re feeling can make a difference.
ThriveLDN, which aims to help the mental health and wellbeing of Londoners and is supported by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, has published specific advice and information for Londoners, especially amidst Loneliness Awareness Week, which can be viewed on ThriveLDN’s Guidance page for mental health and wellbeing in London during Covid-19.
ThriveLDN is a partner of The Mayor of London’s #LondonTogether campaign that’s working to ensure Londoners feel connected with the information and support that they need, and to be motivated to follow guidance and help each other. LondonTogether is working to ensure Londoners feel that we can get through this together.
To find out more about coping with loneliness during the coronavirus lockdown, you can check out these three articles:
- Feeling lonely during lockdown? You need to read this
- “Hearing others talk about how they feel in lockdown has made me feel less alone”
- Feeling lonely? Here’s how to tell when you’re struggling (and what to do about it)
For more information on coping with loneliness and taking care of your mental health, including organisations that might be able to help, you can check out the NHS loneliness pages or visit the Mind website.