Covid Nervousness Is a Well being Downside Too
Masked women go for a walk in New York on October 13th.
SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS
In New York City, I often see people walking down the sidewalk, masks hanging low over their chins, looking scared and dodging each other. The health benefits of these cautious rituals are minimal to none, and they illustrate the toll that Covid-19 fear has taken on mental health.
A new global study published in the Lancet examines 48 data sources to quantify this toll. The authors report a worldwide increase of more than 129 million cases of major depression and anxiety disorders compared to the pre-pandemic numbers. They attribute this to the “combined effects of the spread of the virus, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, reduced public transport, school and business closings, and reduced social interactions,” among other things.
The increase in mental health problems correlated both with infection rates and with restrictions in personal behavior: “We estimate that the locations most affected by the pandemic in 2020 had, as measured by reduced human mobility and the daily SARS-CoV-2 infection rate “The largest increase in the prevalence of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders.”
Similarly, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the incidence of anxiety and depression correlates with the average number of daily Covid-19 cases – although the CDC considers the effects of bans and other restrictions on those did not consider mental health separately.
As in previous studies, the mental health effects were greatest in younger people, likely because their need for social interaction is stronger and their social life is more dependent on people outside the household. They also have a significantly lower risk of serious illnesses, so that restrictions represent a relatively high burden for them, especially for the benefit of the elderly.
Since the beginning of the Covid outbreak in China, studies have found a link between the severity of lockdowns and depression rates. A study published in Psychiatry Research in April found that home-stay orders in Louisiana were linked to increases in “emotional stress,” especially among those who already had anxiety problems.
In most states, average anxiety and depression levels rose in late summer, fall, and winter of 2020 while lockdowns were still in place. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly a third of adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in late April and early May 2021, three times the number in 2019 before the pandemic began. But in South Dakota, which had very few restrictions, the numbers were lower, with 24% reporting these symptoms.
The excessive demands on the government to close schools have caused a great psychological tragedy among our young people. The United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization has declared the Covid-19 pandemic the worst disruption to education in history, with 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries out of school at some point in 2020.
Several studies have found that low-income families experienced greater psychological distress when government regulations kept them at home. A University of Washington study published last month by the Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed more than 2,300 American parents and found that distance learning negatively impacted mental health and that “older and black and Hispanic children and families With lower incomes who attend school remotely, they may experience greater mental health impairment than their younger, white, higher-income counterparts. “
Poorly designed methods of stopping infection can harm public health. Lockdowns and shop closings were based on a model that showed some success in controlling the spread of Spanish flu a century ago. It was found to be ineffective in containing SARS-CoV-2, a far more contagious virus, while causing tremendous psychological damage. Many people who are not sick with Covid-19 will never be the same again.
Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health, a medical correspondent for Fox News and the author of COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.
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