'Frustration, stress and narking' if alert level 3 rules 'not clearly understood' - psychologist

If the Government's COVID-19 alert level 3 guidelines are "not clearly understood", it could lead to an increase in "frustration, stress and narking", a clinical psychologist has warned. 

Dr Dougal Sutherland from Victoria University in Wellington says the Government's guidelines on what alert level 3 would look like will "no doubt bring some relief to the nation", but there may be "unexpected psychological effects". 

Dr Sutherland said increased "frustration, stress and narking" could be the result if the limits of the different levels are not made clear enough, especially since the level 4 restrictions "were, for the most part, relatively clear". 

When a dedicated email was set up by the police last month for the public to dob-in others they thought had broken the lockdown rules, it crashed after people flooded to the platform to make complaints. 

Now that Kiwis will soon have more flexibility under the alert level 3 rules, Dr Sutherland fears it could get worse and lead to "a sense of feeling unjustly treated", particularly with some employees able to return to work while others will be told to keep working from home.  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the message is that Kiwis must work from home if they can, but where that's not possible, they can return to work if the company practises physical distancing and contactless engagement with customers. 

 "Less certainty can promote more anxiety and more potential for people looking for gaps or loopholes in the rules particularly as businesses rush to meet requirements that they can operate safely," Dr Sutherland said. 

"Seeing others being treated differently can lead to feelings of anger, resentment, and unfairness."

The Government has noted that they are still refining the limits of the different levels, and Dr Sutherland said the sooner this can be done, the more certainty it will give the country, thus reducing the risk of frustration and confusion.  

"Loosening restrictions on people's movements could see a rapid increase in people seeking psychological and mental health support," Dr Sutherland said.  

"There are signs that during lockdown people are turning to phone-based psychological support services instead of face-to-face meetings."

Clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland.
Clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland. Photo credit: Victoria University of Wellington

He said major crises can trigger episodes of anxiety and depression, especially in those with a history of it, so there is a risk that as the country emerges from lockdown, a wave of help-seeking may "overwhelm" mental health services. 

"We will all need to take care to guard our minds against the optimism bias of 'it's OK now and won't happen to me' as we move out of level 4," Dr Sutherland said. 

"COVID-19 doesn't suddenly go away just because the Government changes an alert level. This battle won't be over until we have fully contained the virus and a vaccination has been found."

The Government has funded three apps - Mentemia, Melon and Staying on Track - to help Kiwis maintain their mental health, financed by the initial $500 million COVID-19 response health package.  

The Mentemia app, for example, was developed by All Blacks legend and mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan, and provides users with tips and techniques to help them take control of their mental wellbeing.

For people experiencing worry and distress, the Staying on Track app uses cognitive behaviour therapy to teach strategies to cope with the stress and disruption to everyday life from COVID-19.

 "This is an incredibly tough time for many Kiwis, and we want people to know that they are not alone, and that there is support out there," said Health Minister David Clark. 

ACT leader David Seymour says while the Government's support and alert level 3 guidelines are "broadly encouraging", he wants to see more flexibility for retailers. 

Seymour criticised the rules for allowing supermarkets to have dozens of customers inside at one time, but butchers, bakers and greengrocers can't open on a 'one in, one out' basis like dairies can. 

"COVID-19 has presented the Government with significant challenges, but decisions about essential businesses have at times been confusing, arbitrary and unfair. This cannot be allowed to continue."