Covid-19 Culture

How Does Lockdown Impact Our Mental Health?

By Jude Holmes

“It Was the Winter of Despair” 

“Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York” are the famous opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, probably written at the end of 1593. The year 1593 had started much as 2021, with an ominous rise in London plague infection rates despite the usual and expected decline in plague over winter months. But much like the bard’s first lines, we in the 21st century have our own glorious summer ahead, heralded by the arrival of the Oxford vaccine. With the physical and metaphysical darkness beginning to recede, we are (and forgive me for speaking on behalf of you) perhaps more cautiously optimistic. Or are we?

“The Worst of Times”

Reports from across the globe show some of the highest levels of infection and hospitalisation seen so far in the pandemic, bolstered by both an increase in cases and improvements in track and test results. Alongside the new reports of physical effects of COVID where as many as one in five people suffer from long COVID, there is a dramatic shift happening in the mental health landscape. Mental health charity Mind reports that nearly 75% of students have experienced a decline in their mental health while CNN reveals a 21% increase in overdose deaths as early as June 2020. UK news headlines have highlighted the strain on the NHS as ICU staff used to providing care of a single patient are now juggling three to four of the most vulnerable patients. King’s College in London published a study tracking the rates of ICU staff mental health and it makes for sobering reading as 40% of healthcare staff reported clinical signs of PTSD.

Beyond students and ICU staff, the NSPCC have reported the link between social isolation and the increase in child abuse which is exacerbated by an increase in stressors to parents and caregivers, while protective services have reduced. A study on alcohol consumption, showed that drinking behaviours decreased overall during quarantine, however, the UK increased their alcohol intake while the USA and Canada reduced theirs. Certain groups, including individuals with children and essential workers, increased their alcohol consumption although depression and anxiety scores were lower for those caring for children. 

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“The Age of Wisdom”

Another line of inquiry looks at data from other pandemics, especially focusing on the long-term effects of them. The Lancet published a rapid review on the psychological impact of quarantine, using data from other pandemics including SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola. The review focuses on the negative psychological impact of quarantine and uses this information to advise governments on how to mitigate the harm in their protocols by providing clear information and rationale for quarantine alongside provisions. This is echoed in the NSPCC study, where practical support and reduction in financial insecurity is the leading recommendation. On top of this, digital exclusion from school and services needs addressing as psychiatric services reduce the risk of domestic violence and can identify and support victims when it occurs. In short, quarantines should be kept as short as possible, provide financial aid, and digital support is vital to promote communication and support, especially for children. Beyond this, countries’ mental health has been rewarded where governments have lead clear instructions and the accompanying population response has been altruistic, rather than forced.

“The Spring of Hope”

There’s no denying that this pandemic has altered the path of every human and their dog in varied and sometimes unexpected ways (did you hear about the increase in near-sightedness in children in China?). The results above were written for policy makers and organisations to take note, but there are messages in there we can all use. It has felt strange to know that the best action to take is to take no action, by staying indoors. But as we head into Spring with the mixed feelings of cancelled exams, vaccine hope and our new year’s resolutions wearing off, now is the time to start repairing and rebuilding the storm damage. The forecasts suggest that schools will continue to be closed into April and many schools are looking for equipment donations. Meanwhile, charities are trying to stock food banks, and on a more individual level, people are picking up the phone to call struggling friends. By providing financial aid, digital support or even just a friendly voice, individual action will continue to be the support on the ground even as governments change. While we’re stuck inside reflecting on the past year, we can look to pandemics past to help determine our future. If you need a little hope, now is the time to look ahead at the alluring sparkle of another roaring twenties.

Jude Holmes is a staff writer at The International. Find her here on LinkedIn.