We often hear it said that we should get on with our lives and learn to live with the virus because measures to suppress transmission are damaging to our mental health, and may even lead to a rise in suicide. This “cure is worse than the disease” argument is regularly trotted out by the ‘libertarian’ anti-lockdown movement. But do the facts bear it out?
The British Medical Journal recently reviewed the available data and concluded that “A reasonably consistent picture is beginning to emerge from high income countries. Reports suggest either no rise in suicide rates (Massachusetts, USA; Victoria, Australia; England) or a fall (Japan, Norway) in the early months of the pandemic… possibly linked to a ‘honeymoon period’ or ‘pulling together’ phenomenon.”
The early period of the pandemic was the only time we had anything approaching a real lockdown. And alongside it we developed a renewed sense of community, with neighbourhood groups spontaneously emerging to provide Mutual Aid and support, and with millions coming out onto the streets every week to applaud the NHS. For most people, this sense of ‘pulling together’ was good for our mental health.
Many people expressed relief during the first lockdown at the opportunity to step off the treadmill for a while, to catch their breath and leave behind the intolerable stresses of work. The roads were quieter and the air was cleaner. Levels of anxiety amongst teenagers, and in particular teenage girls, actually fell during that first lockdown, contrary to the received wisdom that being in school is what is always best for children’s mental health.
Of course, there is no single way that people with mental ill-health experience a situation, and this was certainly true of that first lockdown. Those who were already suffering deprivation were most likely to have been adversely affected. But most of the damage to our mental health came after the first lockdown, during the ‘learn to live with the virus’ stage.
The Samaritans explain that economic downturns do contribute to rising suicide rates. Financial insecurity, poverty, unemployment, homelessness and the fear of homelessness, all impact negatively on our mental health. When you factor in widespread anxiety about the virus itself, and grief caused by the loss of loved ones, most of whom died without family and friends around them, it is not surprising that the pandemic has contributed to the mental health crisis in this country. But it is the government’s poor response to the pandemic, and its failure to provide adequate economic support, that is responsible for this mental health crisis, not lockdowns and restrictions on our movements in themselves.
Some people also blame lockdowns for a rise in deaths due to other conditions, such as heart disease and cancer, as a consequence of patients being unable to access treatment. But again, this is often because our hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid patients, not because of restrictions. There have also tragically been cases of people with acute medical conditions reporting to hospital too late or not at all, partly because of a reluctance to bother an overstretched NHS, and partly because of fear of catching the virus in hospital. Mixed and confusing messaging from government undoubtedly made this problem worse. Measures to suppress transmission would ease the pressure on the NHS and make it easier for people to get treated for other conditions.
Responding to this virus collectively, as a community, in order to eliminate it, would hugely benefit both our mental and physical health, in the short term by enhancing our sense of community, which we know is beneficial (the so-called pulling-together effect), and in the long run by allowing a return to a normal and healthy social life. New Zealand and Vietnam don’t need repeated lockdowns. The economic and mental health impacts of the pandemic would be far less severe if we were to pursue a Zero Covid strategy.