Anxiety and depression on rise even in countries with low Covid-19 rates

Money worries and social disruption spark deeper mental health problems than just virus, say scientists

A teacher wearing a protective mask and face shield speaks during a French lesson at a school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. As officials begin to reopen large parts of the country, the number of confirmed cases in the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil stands at 4.92 million, with spikes not seen slowing. Photographer: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing a sharp rise in depression and anxiety even in countries with low rates of infection, a new study shows.

The research found increased rates of depression and anxiety in Australia in the early days of the outbreak because of related money worries and disruption to social lives.

The study in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that countries with the most successful responses to quashing infections could have overlooked the effects on citizens' mental health.

Researchers surveyed almost 1,300 Australian adults in March 2020 just after federal and state governments closed bars and restaurants, limited social gatherings and imposed border restrictions.

It found that of the 36 people who tested positive for Covid-19, or were closely linked to someone who had, none experienced a negative effect on their mental health.

But those whose work and social life were disrupted by lockdown were linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression, although working from home was not linked to any negative effects.

Lead author Dr Amy Dawel, of the Australian National University in Canberra, said past pandemic research showed those infected, those in hospital and their carers experienced more severe effects.

“However, the impacts of Covid-19 on the broader population in relatively less affected countries are also likely to be substantial,” Dr Dawel said.

Higher rates of mental health problems were found especially among younger people, women and those with existing medical conditions.

"It's important that governments and policymakers recognise that minimising social and financial disruption should also be a central goal of public health policy," Dr Dawel said.

Meanwhile, services for mentally ill and substance abuse patients have been disrupted worldwide during the pandemic, and the virus is expected to cause further distress for many, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.

Only 7 per cent of 134 countries responding to the WHO's survey reported that all mental health services were fully open, with 93 per cent reporting curtailed services for various disorders.

"We think that this is a forgotten aspect of Covid-19," said Devora Kestel, director of the WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Use.

"In a sense, part of the challenges we face is that this is an underfunded area historically."

The survey, conducted from June to August, was published ahead of the WHO’s Big Event for Mental Health on October 10.

It is a global online event that will bring together world leaders, celebrities and advocates on World Mental Health Day to call for increased investments after of Covid-19.

The pandemic is increasing demand for mental-health services, with bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear causing mental health problems or exacerbating existing ones, the WHO said.

Covid-19 can also lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation and stroke, it said.

“Good mental health is absolutely fundamental to overall health and well-being,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's Director General.

“World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life-saving mental health programmes, during the pandemic and beyond.”

The WHO had no data on life-threatening consequences including suicide rates, epileptic seizures or unmanaged opioid dependence that could lead to overdose.

"We see better coverage of alternative services in high-income countries and we need to make sure everybody has access to some kind of alternative," Ms Kestel said.