The wellbeing of New Zealanders plummeted during the country’s nationwide lockdown, research has found, with nearly a third experiencing “moderate to severe psychological distress” – especially young people.
On 15 March Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, ordered the total closure of the country’s borders and on 26 March the entire population of five million entered a strict lockdown.
From an infection point of the view the lockdown worked, but the social toll is continuing to be understood, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and domestic abuse, as well as widespread sleeping problems.
On days 19 and 22 of the nearly five-week lockdown, Otago University’s Dr Susanna Every-Palmer, head of psychological medicine, surveyed 2,000 Kiwis about their wellbeing and mental health, including questions about their levels of depression and anxiety, the state of their family relationships and if they were experiencing any positive side-effects of lockdown.
Every-Palmer found “almost a third of participants experienced mental distress during the lockdown”, with 30% reporting moderate to severe psychological distress and 16% had moderate to high levels of anxiety.
Almost 40% said their level of wellbeing was low.
“New Zealand’s lockdown successfully eliminated Covid-19 from the community, but our results show this achievement brought a significant psychological toll,” Every-Palmer said.
“Substantially increased rates of distress were seen among those who reported having lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in work as a result of the pandemic, those who had potential vulnerabilities to Covid-19, or identified their health status as poor, and those who had a past diagnosis of a mental illness.”
The research also found the lockdown affected different age groups in different ways, with the level of mental distress much higher in younger adults, with almost half of those aged between 18 and 24 experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress compared to less than one in 10 adults aged 65 years and older.
Every-Palmer said her team surmised the cause of this was higher levels of wellbeing among older age groups prior to entering lockdown, and higher levels of resilience learned from past exposure to adversity.
One in 10 people also reported experiencing some form of domestic abuse during lockdown, which corresponds to similar research findings from China, the US, Brazil and Australia.
However the psychological impact of lockdown was not all bad, Every-Palmer said, with 62% of respondents saying there were some enjoyable aspects, including working from home, spending more time with family, and living in a quieter, less polluted environment.
“People reported taking the opportunity to pause, reflect, consider priorities, recreate healthy habits, and they appreciated the environmental benefits brought by reduced travel.”
Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist from Victoria University of Wellington, said the findings were valuable as they were captured in real time.
“Although the study couldn’t tell us exactly what about the lockdown people found stressful, it is likely that a combination of health anxiety and worry about the potential economic consequences of Covid-19 played a role,” Sutherland said.