Negative mental health effects of pandemic lockdown spike, then fade: study


By Xu Jing

CHICAGO, Jan. 25 (Xinhua) -- Research of the University of Illinois (UI) suggests the negative mental health effects of pandemic lockdowns are temporary and gradually decrease over time as people adjust to their "new normal."

The researchers measured mental health trends from January 2020 through the end of June by analyzing daily, state-located search data via Google Trends. They 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 Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology and of business administration at UI. "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," said Bita Fayaz Farkhad, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at UI. "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 research.

"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," said Farkhad. "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 research, posted on UI's website on Monday, has been published in the journal Economics and Human Biology.

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