The world’s biggest psychological experiment: The Lockdown

With 2,6 billion people around the world and most of them in a lockdown, we are conducting arguably the largest psychological experiment ever. Elke Van Hoof, Professor of health psychology and primary care psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, wrote an article about this experiment and how we pay the price of it.



It is known that this pandemic has caused many burnouts and other stress-related complaints, in addition to all other physical complaints. According to Van Hoof, it is important to take action to mitigate the toxic effects of the lockdown. She explains that France was the first country in the world who adopted a revolutionary approach to the aftermath of terrorist attacks and disasters in the mid-1990s. Since France led the way more than 20 years ago, international playbooks for disaster response increasingly call for this two-tent approach: one for the wounded and one to treat the invisible, psychological wounds of trauma.

In our approach for treating COVID-19, the world is scrambling to build enough tents to treat infected citizens, or whether they scale up in intensive care. But we are not setting up the second tent for psychological help, Van Hoof argues. An irresponsible decision, she says, because we will pay the price within three to six months after the end of this unprecedented lockdown, at a time when we will need all able bodies to help the world economy recover.

Mental health during lockdown

Now that the vaccines are arriving, it seems like we are facing the end of the tunnel. Sadly, not all countries are equally fast, in most countries the strict lockdown rules are still enforced. The mental problems that it causes are becoming more and more apparent and expanding. Multiple studies have shown these effects, according to Van Hoof.

In short, and perhaps unsurprisingly, people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Low mood and irritability specifically stand out as being very common, these studies notes.

In some cases, during the first lockdown where parents were quarantined with children, the mental health toll became even steeper. In one study, no less than 28% of quarantined parents warranted a diagnosis of “trauma-related mental health disorder”. Knowing this was already a year ago!

Recovering from the pandemic

Just when we need all able bodies to repair the economy, we can expect a sharp spike in absenteeism and burnout, Van Hoof argues. This is known from many examples, ranging from absenteeism in military units after deployment in risk areas, companies that were close to Ground Zero in 9/11 and medical professionals in regions with outbreaks of Ebola, SARS and MERS.

In general, it is known that at-risk groups for long-term mental health issues will be the healthcare workers who are on the frontline, young people under 30 and children, the elderly and those in precarious situations, for example, owing to mental illness, disability and poverty. Van Hoof is not surprised at all; insights on the long-term damage of disasters have been accepted in the field of trauma psychology for decades (Figure 1.2).

Image: When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

So, these insights are not new, this pandemic is, even though we are living with the virus for over a year. Van Hoof argues, that more than a third of the global population is dealing with these intense stressors. We need to act now to mitigate the toxic effects of this lockdown.

What can we do?

Among academics, there is a broad consensus about what psychological care is needed following disasters and major incidents. Van Hoof sums them up:

  1. Make sure self-help interventions are in place that can address the needs of large affected populations;
  2. Educate people about the expected psychological impact and reactions to trauma if they are interested in receiving it. Make sure people understand that a psychological reaction is normal;
  3. Launch a specific website to address psychosocial issues;
  4. Make sure that people with acute issues can find the help that they need

When it comes to offering psychological support to their populations, most countries are late to react, as they were to the novel coronavirus.

But better late than never. Make sure the right psychological support will be organized and anchored within your organization! Do you need help during this process? SPRING TODAY provides the Change & Transformation experts who speak the language of the organization and understand the challenges and complexity of the context. They connect, create movement and set a route to “the organization of tomorrow! To be that prepared organization. Because we have to. This pandemic emphasizes this even more. Please contact


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