The results are in - COVID lockdowns were bad for our mental health
A major new study looking at the impact of last year's COVID-19 outbreaks on the mental health of Australian families shows Victorian parents and children experienced a significant peak in symptoms during that state's extended lockdown, compared to the rest of Australia.
The study, which involved more than 2000 families, proved to be a rare natural experiment as Victoria battled higher infection rates and longer lockdowns than the rest of the country.
Significantly, the findings also showed a worrying third peak in mental health symptoms in Victoria during May this year, suggesting an ongoing impact from the pandemic even out of lockdown.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Adjustment Survey, led by Dr Elizabeth Westrupp at Deakin University's Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED), found parent and child mental health symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress followed the COVID-19 infection rate, with a nation-wide peak in symptoms during the first national lockdown between April and May 2020 and a second much larger peak in symptoms in Victoria during that state's second lockdown between July and October 2020.
Dr Westrupp said findings from the study, which is the world's most intensive study of parents and children during the pandemic, have been made available to the public via an online interactive app for readers.
"The data shows the considerable burden of the pandemic on Australian families, particularly those living in Victoria," Dr Westrupp said.
"Victoria experienced one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. This allowed us to see a clear difference in what was happening in Victoria compared to other parts of Australia, which were much less affected by COVID."
For the study, parents of children aged from newborn to 18 years were followed 14 times over 14 months, from April 2020 to May 2021.
Dr Westrupp said the findings showed families most vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems included:
- Mothers were particularly at risk of a deterioration in their mental health during the COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns,
- High levels of loneliness in parents and children, pre-existing mental health problems or high levels of couple conflict, led to worsening mental health trajectories over time,
- Financial strains (such as low income, food shortages, and job losses) and poor-quality housing placed families at increased risk of mental health problems, and,
- Parents who reported feeling stressed or worried about the pandemic were more likely to experience mental health problems.
"The unexpected deterioration of parent and child symptoms in March to May this year may represent increasing public uncertainty or weariness with the pandemic and associated social restrictions," Dr Westrupp said.
"These findings tell us we need to more actively monitor mental health and ensure good ongoing access to mental health supports and services even when pandemic impacts appear to be easing."