New research now suggests that stay-at-home mandates issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus do negatively impact mental health. However, the effects gradually lessen as time passes and individuals adjust to their new routines.
The research, which appears in the journal Economics & Human Biology, found that mitigation measures such as shelter-in-place orders initially corresponded with increases in internet searches for information about topics such as “isolation” and “worry.”
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Yet the researchers found that those effects tended to taper off around 2–4 weeks after their respective peaks.
Prof. Dolores Albarracín, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Bita Fayaz Farkhad, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology there, conducted their research by studying daily internet search data from January to June 2020. To do this, they used Google Trends, which is a tool that provides data on specific search terms.
People often turn to Google, which is the most popular search engine globally, to research their concerns — including concerns about health issues. Studies have found that analyzing Google Trends accurately forecasts trends regarding subjects such as influenza, economic activity, and suicide.
For their research, Dr. Farkhad and Prof. Albarracín examined data on a set of terms related to mitigation policies, terms related to mental health (such as “isolation,” “insomnia,” and “antidepressant”), and terms for activities that people can enjoy at home (including “Netflix,” “sex,” “recipe,” and “exercise”).
“Our findings showed that even though the mitigation measures increased negative feelings of isolation or worry, the effects were mostly transient,” Dr. Farkhad says.
Previous studies had found that quarantines could be associated with increased mental health symptoms. A rapid review of existing data from March 2020 examined 24 published studies, and most reported that quarantining caused negative mental health effects. These included post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger.
A working paper that examined data from the 2012–2013 American Time Use Survey predicted that imposed isolation on single people would reduce their happiness.
Another study, this time in the Journal of Public Economics, found increases in Google searches for “boredom,” “loneliness,” “worry,” and “sadness” during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it saw a decrease in searches for “stress,” “suicide,” and “divorce.”
For their research, Dr. Farkhad and Prof. Albarracín wanted to examine the intensity of any negative mental health impacts due to stay-at-home orders.
“We wanted to study how serious the mental health impact of the mitigation phase was during the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring,” explains Dr. Farkhad.
She adds: “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?”
Significantly, Dr. Farkhad and Prof. Albarracín found that stay-at-home orders correlated with decreased searches for the terms “antidepressants” and “suicide.”
They speculate that, due to stay-at-home orders, individuals experienced greater flexibility in how to spend their days and have increased time spent with family.
Taking up a hobby and enjoying regular physical activity and social support are all factors associated with improved physical and mental health.
“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,” Dr. Farkhad hypothesizes.
“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,” she adds.
The authors point out that changes in mental health cannot solely be attributed to isolation due to stay-at-home orders. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in widespread job loss, sickness, and death — all of which can cause stress and poor mental health.
Additionally, the authors emphasize that their work did not allow them to break down results among certain demographics.
They explain that certain populations, such as children and older adults, might be especially isolated during the pandemic. This may leave them more vulnerable to negative mental health consequences.
The authors emphasize that the psychological impacts of stay-at-home orders appear to be low, while the health benefits of limiting the spread of the coronavirus are extremely high.
If officials need to issue similar lockdown orders in the future, the authors suggest that they could allow exemptions for populations who face higher mental health risks from isolation.
They also recommend that public health leaders could look for ways to increase social connection virtually.
“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.”
– Dr. Bita Fayaz Farkhad
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