Study: Negative mental health effects of pandemic lockdowns spike, then fade

January 25, 2021

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Absent a widely available vaccine, mitigation measures such as stay-at-home mandates, lockdowns or shelter-in-place orders have been the major public health policies deployed by state governments to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But given the uncertain duration of such policies, questions have been raised about the potential negative mental health consequences of extended lockdowns with indefinite end dates. But according to new research co-written by a team of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign experts who study the intersection of health care and public policy, the negative mental health effects of such lockdowns are temporary and gradually decrease over time as people adjust to their "new normal."

Research co-written by Dolores Albarracín, a professor of psychology and of business administration at Illinois, and Bita Fayaz Farkhad, an economist and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Illinois, found that social distancing policies correlated with immediate increases in interest in obtaining information about "isolation" and "worry" - but those effects tapered off two to four weeks after their respective peaks.

"Previous studies of the psychological impact of lockdowns during other disease outbreaks have indicated that quarantines are associated with increased mental health symptoms," Farkhad said. "We wanted to study how serious the mental health impact of the mitigation phase was during the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring. Did it go beyond people feeling anxious or disheartened? Was it long lasting, and did it increase suicide ideation and the need for medical treatment for depression?

"These questions are, quite obviously, important from a mental and public health perspective."

Albarracín and Farkhad measured mental health trends from January 2020 through the end of June by analyzing daily, state-located search data via Google Trends, which afforded the researchers a large-scale search overview and the ability to parse information about searches for a given period in a search locale. The researchers first used a set of terms related to mitigation policies, and then obtained data on searches about mental health. The search data set also included terms for in-home activities.

The researchers found that the negative effects of stay-at-home orders weren't as dire as initially thought.

"At the outset of the pandemic, consistent with prior research, social distancing policies correlated with a spike in searches about how to deal with isolation and worry, which shouldn't be surprising," said Albarracín, also the director of the Social Action Lab at Illinois. "Generally speaking, if you have a pandemic or an economic shock, that's going to produce its own level of anxiety, depression and negative feelings, and we had both with COVID-19."

But the effects on searches for isolation and worry due to the mitigation policies were temporary and decreased gradually after peaking, the researchers said.

"Our findings showed that even though the mitigation measures increased negative feelings of isolation or worry, the effects were mostly transient," Farkhad said. "A potential explanation of this finding is that even though social isolation increased risk factors for mental health, the stay-at-home order also increased within-home hours that might promote new routines and greater social support within the family. Searches for activities such as 'exercise,' 'Netflix' and 'cooking' were positively associated with the stay-at-home policy, suggesting that individuals enjoyed spending more time at home."

Moreover, the policies correlated with a reduction in searches for "antidepressants" and "suicide," thus revealing no evidence of increases in severe symptomatology, according to the paper.

"It is possible that people who were able to work from home liked working from home, liked being able to set their own schedule and liked being able to exercise more, all of which has positive mental and physical health benefits," Farkhad said. "Although they might not be able to go out to a restaurant or bar, they have a little bit more control over other aspects of their life, which enhances well-being."

"That suggests that people adjusted to their new situation and that the negative mental health effects dissipated."

The public health policy implications are that if states need to go through an extended lockdown period again with COVID-19, health professionals ought to pay extra attention to people with acute cases of depression and anxiety, and target them for extra help via telemedicine, Farkhad said.

"However, the psychological distress following the lockdown orders is likely to be low compared with the overall health benefits of mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "Implementing interventions aimed at increasing social connection and social support might be an important mechanism for addressing the potential negative psychological consequences if sheltering-in-place becomes necessary once again to tame the COVID-19 pandemic."
The paper was published in the journal Economics and Human Biology.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau

Related Mental Health Articles from Brightsurf:

Mental health strained by disaster
A new study found that suicide rates increase during all types of disasters -- including severe storms, floods, hurricanes and ice storms -- with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster.

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

World Mental Health Day -- CACTUS releases report of largest researcher mental health survey
On the occasion of 'World Mental Health Day' 2020, CACTUS, a global scientific communications company, has released a global survey on mental health, wellbeing and fulfilment in academia.

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.

COVID-19 outbreak and mental health
The use of online platforms to guide effective consumption of information, facilitate social support and continue mental health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed in this Viewpoint.

COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adversely affecting mental health among hospitalised patients, the healthcare professionals treating them and the general population.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental ill health 'substantial health concern' among police, finds international study
Mental health issues among police officers are a 'substantial health concern,' with around 1 in 4 potentially drinking at hazardous levels and around 1 in 7 meeting the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder and depression, finds a pooled data analysis of the available international evidence, published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Examining health insurance nondiscrimination policies with mental health among gender minority individuals
A large private health insurance database was used to examine the association between between health insurance nondiscrimination policies and mental health outcomes for gender minority individuals.

Mental health care for adolescents
Researchers examined changes over time in the kinds of mental health problems for which adolescents in the United States received care and where they got that care in this survey study with findings that should be interpreted within the context of several limitations including self-reported information.

Read More: Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to