Study finds lockdown has biggest impact on three specific groups

Evelyn Lewin

23/07/2020 12:47:27 PM

New research has found that women, young people, and those living with young children have experienced the greatest rise in mental distress.

Stressed young mother
Being cut off from social networks and support groups can be especially difficult for people with young children.

Women, young people, and those living with young children.
These are the groups who were most affected by Britain’s strict coronavirus lockdown, according to a new paper published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
The results were gathered from a longitudinal cohort study of 17,452 participants in the UK who completed a COVID-19 web survey in April, a time when lockdown had been in place for one month.
The mental health of participants was assessed using a 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12).
It found that population prevalence of clinically significant levels of mental distress rose from 18.9% in 2018–19, to 27.3% in 2020.
Increases were greatest in 18–24-year-olds, 25–34-year-olds, women, and those living with young children.
These results make sense to Dr Cathy Andronis, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Psychological Medicine network.
‘We know that lockdown is very stressful for everybody,’ she told newsGP.
‘But if you’ve got a group [of people] that has increased vulnerability – and that’s what these groups are – then it’s going to be more likely that they’re going to suffer more in lockdown.’
Dr Andronis said there are a number of reasons these particular groups may be most affected by lockdown.
‘We know young women are the most anxious group in our society in Australia, and they have high rates of anxiety and depression, so any extra stress like isolation and lockdown is going to really exacerbate that significantly,’ she said.
‘People with young children are vulnerable because it’s quite stressful being at home with young children, and those people rely a lot on social networks, friendship groups, mother’s groups and social interactions outside the home to create some balance in their life and to give them support.’
Similarly, young people may also experience worsening mental health during lockdown due to lack of social interaction and support.
‘Our culture is reliant on people doing their socialising outside of home, especially the young,’ she said.
‘The younger we are, the more likely we are to need other people around us.’
Further new research, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, supports the idea that older people cope better emotionally during the pandemic.
For that study, researchers analysed data from 776 participants aged 18–91 who live in Canada and the US, who completed daily surveys for one week between mid-March and mid-April.
It found adults aged 60 and older fared better emotionally during the pandemic compared to those younger than 60.
The study’s lead author, Patrick Klaiber, says these results provide new evidence that older adults are ‘emotionally resilient’ despite often being portrayed as vulnerable.
‘Younger and middle-aged adults are faced with family- and work-related challenges, such as working from home, homeschooling children and unemployment,’ he said.
‘They are also more likely to experience different types of ongoing non-pandemic stressors than older adults, such as interpersonal conflicts.’

Working from home can present a number of challenges to mental health. 

While these studies are based on results from participants in the UK, US and Canada, Dr Andronis believes their findings are applicable in Australia.
‘I expect to see the same sort of issues here,’ she said.
However, there are other factors that may also contribute to increased mental distress in Australia.
Dr Andronis believes lockdown is ‘particularly stressful’ for refugees, those in low socioeconomic circumstances and people who live in crowded or high-density environments.
The recent ‘hard lockdown’ for public housing residents in Melbourne may have also contributed to greater mental distress.
‘The residents of the public housing high-rise towers suffered greatly by the added pressure of hard lockdown with very little notice or preparation,’ she said.
‘Lack of autonomy is always challenging, but when people feel that there is very little control in their life, it doesn’t take long for hopelessness and helplessness to set in and trigger sudden and rapid deteriorating mental health with potentially life-threatening consequences.’
Dr Andronis says these studies act as an important reminder for GPs to check in on patients’ mental health during the pandemic, especially those under lockdown.
‘GPs should probably factor in that anxiety is likely to be present in most of our consultations, whether they are face-to-face or via the phone, especially if you’re in Melbourne at the moment,’ she said.
While patients are more likely to be anxious, Dr Andronis says it is also important to remember they may not feel comfortable discussing such issues during. She believes the onus should therefore be on GPs to enquire about their patients’ mental health.
‘Ask people how they’re going … and have a frank discussion about the fact that [feeling anxious] is common,’ she said.
‘Allow them to confide in you and to give them the opportunity to have services [such as advice on Centrelink, or formulating a mental health care plan] offered to them.
‘I think GPs should be proactive at actually enquiring about people’s mental health issues and just common, garden variety anxiety, sadness, grief and stress, by asking questions.
‘Unless you ask, you’re not going to get that information.’
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