Coronavirus: what are the risks of confinement for our mental health?

Beware of collateral damage. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic , a team of British researchers is warning world leaders about the potentially “dramatic” effects of the containment measures imposed to curb the coronavirus. In France, such a device came into force on Tuesday, March 17, at noon, for a minimum of fifteen days – without the question of the impact on mental health having been clearly posed.

In an article published on March 14 in the scientific journal The Lancet (in English) , seven members of the psychology department of King’s College London warn: “The potential benefits of a massive and compulsory quarantine must be weighed carefully possible psychological costs. ” In other words, the fight against the epidemic should not give rise to another epidemic, less visible, directly affecting the spirits. “Nor is it a question of excluding all confinement,” they said.

The psychological effects of lack of quarantine and free spread of the virus could be worse.
The authors of the article
in “The Lancet”

For this analysis, the researchers rely on a corpus of 24 scientific studies relating to confinements during previous epidemics: SARS in 2003, H1N1 flu in 2009 and 2010 or Ebola since 2014. Small groups or entire cities had then been put under bell by the authorities, as well in China, in Canada as in Africa. “Most studies report negative psychological consequences” and some “suggest long-term effects” , conclude the authors.

“A necessarily unpleasant situation”
The list of symptoms noted is long: stress, emotional fatigue, insomnia, anger, depression … Mood disorders and irritability are the most frequently observed difficulties, often due to boredom, frustration and the social isolation felt by people.

“Confinement in France is bound to be an unpleasant and stressful situation , ” said one of the article’s authors, Professor Neil Greenberg, contacted by franceinfo.

The most vulnerable will be those who already have a history, and this may tip others who were not at best – hence the importance of looking out for each other.

Neil Greenberg
at franceinfo

The British psychiatrist mentions an increased risk of aggressive behavior due to confinement, particularly in fragile households. “Confinement can worsen situations of domestic or family violence , ” said the researcher. He also dreads suicide.

For people who have poor mental health and who depend heavily on a few people who they can no longer suddenly see, there is a risk that this could be a trigger. You have to give them a good reason to hold on.

Neil Greenberg
at franceinfo

In their article, researchers at King’s College London have identified several factors that can aggravate psychological weaknesses. The lack of clear rules and pedagogy on the goal of confinement are part of it, as is the fear of being contaminated yourself or of contaminating others. The fact that the confinement measure is extended beyond the announced deadline – as is likely to be the case in France – can generate additional suffering.

In Wuhan, “important” psychological effects
In China, researchers from the Shanghai Mental Health Center interviewed nearly 53,000 people, via an online questionnaire, between January 31 and February 10, in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic. The results of the first national survey, published March 6 in General Psychiatry (in English) , “nearly 35% of respondents have suffered some form of psychological distress” . The highest levels were observed in the center of the country, especially in the Hubei region, the cradle of the epidemic, where containment measures were most important.

In this region, “the psychological consequences are very significant” , confirms to Franceinfo Simeng Wang, sociologist at CNRS, specialist in the Chinese diaspora and mental health issues. This researcher is particularly interested in the city of Wuhan, where she is from. “We have seen cases of people anxious for their health, who were constantly stressed, and others anxious to see Chinese society thus destabilized , she explains. There are also forms of psychosis, with speeches by end of the world, and depressions. Finally, many people suffer from loneliness. “

Social distances are created and links are reduced. However, it is proven that these social relationships protect against ill-being and mental disorders.

Simeng Wang
at franceinfo

The Chinese press has already reported an increase in domestic violence. In the province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, a police station observed a tripling of reports in February, according to the founder of an association combating violence against women, quoted by the Sixth Tone site (in English) . Another association based in Beijing said it received three times more calls than usual, according to the BBC (in English) .

In countries confining their inhabitants, the most striking consequences – without being the most widespread – may well only occur after the confinement has ended. The authors of the Lancet article report cases of post-traumatic symptoms, both in adults and in children, especially after confinements of more than 10 days.

“Being all in the same boat will help”
In one of the studies reviewed, several people said that it took months before they returned to normal life. According to another publication, in the weeks following a confinement linked to the SARS epidemic, 56% of those who have recovered their freedom avoided people coughing or sneezing and 21% avoided public places. “We can expect similar effects in France , says Neil Greenberg. The advantage of confinement is that people will feel safe from the virus at home, because the threat is rather outside. This can reduce their anxiety at first. “

When it is necessary to leave this safe zone and return to a normal life, there is a risk of having a renewed anxiety among some.

Neil Greenberg
at franceinfo

However, the British researcher wants to qualify the picture. “If the containment is organized in a reasonable manner, if people have good access to basic necessities and if they are kept informed, there may not be any significant long-term effects ,” he said.

If you educate yourself with reliable sources, if you stay active socially, even from a distance, and if you keep a healthy diet, you maximize your chances of doing well, if not better.

Neil Greenberg
at franceinfo

The fact that the whole country has the same experience of confinement could help overcome this ordeal. “Knowing that we are all in the same boat really helps in these situations , concludes Neil Greenberg. Human beings have a great capacity for adaptation. If things are done right, people will cope, without crisis, without panic . “

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