The mental health concerns of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic are impacting even those who do not contract the virus, according to a new survey published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

The survey, conducted in Australia, found that even people in countries with low rates of infection and fatalities are experiencing twice as much depression and anxiety. According to the researchers, these findings are largely related to financial stressors and disruptions in people’s social lives.

“We already know from past pandemic research that the people who are most affected, such as those who become ill and/or are hospitalized and their carers, experience more severe impacts,” said lead author Amy Dawel, PhD, in a press release. “However, the impacts of COVID-19 on the broader population in relatively less affected countries are also likely to be substantial.”

To investigate, Dawel and her team surveyed nearly 1300 Australian adults in March 2020, shortly after the first COVID-19 restrictions went into effect. In Australia during this timeframe, authorities had closed international borders, bars and restaurants, and had limited social gatherings. The participants included a representative distribution of the population, with equal numbers of men and women.

Since the survey was conducted in the early stages of the pandemic, only 36 participants reported having a recent COVID-19 diagnosis or having had close contact with someone who had been diagnosed. Relatively few of the respondents said they had been tested, had self-isolated, or had known anyone with these experiences. Surprisingly, the authors said these cases of COVID-19 contact showed no link to adverse mental health impacts.

“Our data show that the by-products of COVID-19 are affecting populations broadly—notwithstanding how great the physical illness impact is—and the concern is that countries with strong restrictions, who appear to circumvent the worst of COVID-19, may overlook the indirect impacts of the pandemic,” Dawel said in the release.

Financial distress and disruptions to work and social activities were significantly associated with depression and anxiety, as well as generally diminished psychological wellbeing. However, the authors noted that working from home was not associated with any negative effects. Higher rates of mental health symptoms were found among younger respondents, those who identified themselves as female, and those who reported having a pre-existing mental health condition.

“We hope that these data highlight that the way countries manage COVID-19 is likely to impact their population’s mental health, beyond those most directly affected by the disease,” Dawel concluded. “It’s important that governments and policy makers recognize that minimizing social and financial disruption should also be a central goal of public health policy.”

REFERENCE
Indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic coincide with a heavy mental health burden [news release]. EurekAlert!; October 6, 2020. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/f-ieo092820.php. Accessed October 8, 2020.