Coronavirus: Family violence, mental distress surged during alert level 4 lockdown, study finds

Warning: This article discusses poor mental health, family violence and suicide.

New Zealand's alert level 4 coronavirus response took a "significant psychological toll" on Kiwis, new research has shown - with nearly a third experiencing mental distress during the lockdown.

It also coincided with a surge in family harm and a small increase in those having suicidal thoughts - though there were positive outcomes, too, with most Kiwis enjoying some "silver linings" while they isolated at home.

The Otago University research saw adult New Zealanders surveyed between April 15-18 - right in the middle of the 33-day lockdown - about their mental health and family relationships.

The results, published in international scientific journal PLOS ONE on Thursday morning, showed anxieties and stresses increased due to  the lockdown - particularly among those who lost jobs, were vulnerable to COVID-19 or had previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.

'Substantially increased rates of distress' at alert level 4

The study found mental distress was widespread during New Zealand's lockdown, with young adults the demographic most likely to suffer psychological hardship.

Almost half of participants aged 18 to 24 experienced moderate to severe mental distress - a proportion significantly higher than the one-tenth of those 65 or older.

Susanna Every-Palmer, Otago University's head of psychological medicine, says this is likely because older people enjoy a higher baseline level of wellbeing, have developed greater resilience, and were less likely to be affected economically.

In total, almost a third of surveyed Kiwis experienced mental distress during the lockdown.

Lockdown coincided with a surge in family harm and a small increase in those having suicidal thoughts.
Lockdown coincided with a surge in family harm and a small increase in those having suicidal thoughts. Photo credit: Getty

Thirty percent of participants reported moderate to severe psychological distress, 16 percent had moderate to high levels of anxiety, and almost 40 percent said their level of wellbeing was low.

Dr Every-Palmer says while the lockdown successfully eliminated COVID-19 from the community, it's clear it also posed a major psychological challenge for Kiwis.

"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," she said.

Those who had potential vulnerabilities to COVID-19, identified their health status as poor, or had a past diagnosis of a mental illness also struggled, Dr Every-Palmer added.

She argues that her research team's findings emphasise a need for the Government to make mental wellbeing during and after lockdowns as much a priority as other health measures, such as contact-tracing, personal protective equipment and ventilators."

Lockdown saw surge in family harm, but no marked increase in suicidal thoughts

Of those surveyed, almost one in 10 said they had experienced some form of family harm over the lockdown period. This includes sexual assault, physical assault,harassment, and threatening behaviour.

This level of family harm is three to four times higher than the levels reported in the 2018-2019 NZ Crime and Victims of Crime Survey - which found 2.2 percent of adults were victims of offences by family members.

This reflects statistics gathered from around the world - including in China, Greece, Germany, the US, Brazil and Australia - which show a strong correlation between increased family violence and lockdowns.

Amid a major increase in poor mental health outcomes and family harm in New Zealand, it's perhaps surprising news that the lockdown did not cause the major increase in suicides that was feared.

Just over 6 percent of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts at alert level 4 - though for the vast majority (83 percent), this was not the first time they'd had them.

This supports provisional data released by the Chief Coroner in May, which found the suicide rate was actually lower during the 33 days at our strictest lockdown than it was in 33 days preceding it.

'Silver linings': Most Kiwis enjoyed parts of lockdown

While largely negative, the study also found nearly two-thirds of Kiwis experienced what Dr Every-Palmer describes as "silver linings" during lockdown.

Of those surveyed, 62 percent of respondents enjoyed parts of isolating at home, such as the opportunity to work away from the office, 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 Every-Palmer said.

The COVID-19 lockdown brought major environmental benefits to New Zealand.

A study earlier this year found it triggered a massive 41 percent drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels - the second-most significant drop in the world - while air quality across Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch fell 75 percent.

Where to find help and support

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