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COVID-19 social distancing having significant impact on mental health, study shows

A study by researchers at Swansea University and Manchester University shows social distancing and isolation is having a significant impact on people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.

The research finds:

• That social distancing is leading to heightened feelings of anxiety and depression among the general public.

• People in low-paid or insecure occupations are worst hit.

• Some people are fearful they will continue to be anxious about their health and socialising after the lockdown, while others plan to go back to normal levels of social activity as soon as possible.

The research is a preliminary report which has been published on medRxiv, a site used by researchers to share new findings on timely issues before they have been peer-reviewed for publication in a journal (more information in notes below).

The study is being led by Dr Simon Williams, public health researcher at Swansea University, in collaboration with Dr Kimberly Dienes and Professor Christopher Armitage of Manchester University’s Centre for Health Psychology, and Dr Tova Tampe, an independent consultant at the World Health Organization (WHO).

The researchers conducted online focus groups with UK adults representing a range of gender, ethnic, age and occupational backgrounds in order to explore their views and experiences in the early stages of lockdown. Even after as little as two weeks, people were struggling with the loss of social interaction.

The study also provides early evidence on how people might behave after the current lockdown ends, something that will influence how much and how quickly COVID-19 will continue to spread.

Dr Simon Williams said: “Remarkable efforts are being made by the public to contain the spread of COVID-19, and these efforts should continue as long as is necessary.

“Our study finds that many people are really sticking to the guidelines on social distancing, however it is coming at a significant cost to people’s mental health and wellbeing - particularly those in low-paid or insecure jobs.

“One of the big stressors for people was the fact they do not know how long the lockdown will last. Although some people are worried they will still be anxious about socialising for some time after the lockdown ends, others are already planning lots of social activities as soon as they are able to.

“A rapid response is necessary in terms of public health programming to mitigate these mental health impacts. Waiting to provide support until after social distancing and isolation measures are relaxed or removed could have potentially devastating and lasting impacts on mental health, especially amongst those already socially and economically vulnerable.”

Dr Dienes, a clinical and health psychologist at Manchester University, added: “One of the key themes was a feeling of loss. For others it has meant a loss of structure and routine as people struggle to balance working from home with childcare. For everyone it has meant a loss of face-to-face social interaction.

“Our study shows how these physical losses are having a knock-on effect in the form of emotional ‘losses’, such as a loss of self-worth, loss of motivation and a loss of meaning in daily life.”

****This study is a pre-print and is a preliminary report of work that has not yet been certified by peer review.

A pre-print should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in the media as established information.****

The study appears in MedRxiv, which is a collaboration between Yale University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a not-for-profit research and educational institution, and BMJ, a global healthcare knowledge provider. More about MedRxiv.

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