Social distancing worst COVID-19 restriction for mental health, finds studies

During the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a decline in mental health throughout Europe. [ eldar nurkovic / SHUTTERSTOCK]

New research suggests that the main cause of mental health decline during the COVID-19 pandemic was social distancing rules.

Lockdown measures and their effects have been hotly debated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown how our mental health declined during the pandemic, and experts and policymakers have called for action.

To find the causes of the decline, two new studies published in The Lancet Thursday (21 April) aimed to assess the association between COVID-19 policy restrictions and mental health during the pandemic and examine changes in mental health.

Both studies showed that stricter policy measures aimed at controlling the pandemic were associated with worse mental health.

They collected data on mental health through Imperial College London’s COVID-19 behaviour tracker with two different measures of mental health: psychological distress and life evaluation.

Using a Stringency Index to evaluate the strictness of countries’ response to the pandemic, the authors divided the included countries into ones with elimination strategies (Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea) and mitigation strategies (Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK).

That means that the latter opted for mitigating the effects of COVID-19 rather than eliminating community transmission.

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In the countries with a mitigation strategy of intermittent lockdowns, workplace and school closings, social distancing, face masks and cancelling public gatherings, the researchers found a lower life evaluation.

Social distancing measures such as fewer gatherings and more requirements to stay at home were connected to higher psychological distress.

On the other hand, policies such as closures of schools and workplaces were not linked to a decline in mental health.

“Mitigation strategies may be associated with worse mental health outcomes at least in part because containment measures such as long periods of lockdowns and physical distancing can impede social connections,” said co-author Rafael Goldszmidt.

“Strategies that aim to eliminate transmission while promoting early actions and targeted stringency can reduce deaths while also protecting people’s mental health in the process,” he added.

Women’s day: Time to address inequalities experienced by women during pandemic

Ahead of Women’s Day, the European Parliament started discussing the disproportionate effects that the pandemic had on women, who ultimately faced more unpaid care work, violence and worsened mental health as a consequence of lockdowns and curfews.

Not everyone affected in the same way

As the WHO has previously warned, the mental health impacts of lockdowns impacted different societal groups in different ways. They highlighted that young persons, women and people with pre-existing physical health conditions were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.

The second Lancet study, conducted with Australian participants, also concludes that women were more impacted by the lockdown than men. Those between 20 and 29 years of age were hardest hit.

“While the effects of lockdowns on overall population mental health were small, there were substantial and clinically relevant impacts for some groups. Women, especially those living in couple families with dependent children, have been hit hardest and were more likely than men in any age group to see a decline in their mental health,” said co-author of the second study, Mark Wooden, professor at the University of Melbourne.

“This gendered effect may be due to the additional workload associated with working from home while having to care for and educate their children at the same time, heightening already existing inequalities in household and caring responsibilities,” he added.

Wooden’s last point was also debated during a special interparliamentary committee meeting at the beginning of March, in the context of Women’s Day, as reported by EURACTIV.

“On average, women across the EU have been doing 36 hours of unpaid work care work each week during the pandemic, which is almost 2000 hours per year. (…) So this means that women have quite literally been working a double shift since the COVID crisis began,” said Carlien Scheele, director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), at the committee meeting in March.

Suicide increasing amongst Europe's youth, governments underprepared

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the mental health of Europeans and suicide amongst young people is rising, but in a number of countries, national health authorities have provided only patchy responses so far, according to the EURACTIV network reporting.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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