Lockdowns and depression
Did restrictions on mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a decline in mental health?
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on mental health. At the height of the pandemic, the share of Americans reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety rose to nearly 40 percent, compared to 11 percent in early 2019.
A contributing factor may be the social isolation caused by restrictions on movement, especially in countries with strict lockdown policies, according to a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Authors Onur Altindag, Bilge Erten, and Pinar Keskin found that age-specific curfews in Turkey were directly tied to worsening mental health.
In March 2020, the Turkish government imposed a strict stay-at-home order for people 65 and older. While it was relaxed somewhat over time, the curfew remained in effect until June 2020. The authorities imposed severe financial penalties on those who failed to comply, and as a result, many people significantly reduced the time they spent outside their homes.
Panels A and B of Figure 3 from the authors’ paper show how indicators of mental distress jumped significantly for senior citizens affected by the curfew.
Panels A and B of Figure 3 from Altindag et al. (2022)
Panel A plots an index of mental distress outcomes—including poor concentration, suicidal thoughts, digestive problems, and other symptoms of anxiety and depression. Panel B plots an index of somatic symptoms, which includes only physical signs of anxiety and depression. The vertical line in each panel indicates the binding age cutoff for the curfew, December 1955.
Comparing those just under the cutoff to those just above it, the authors found that the curfew worsened both mental health indices by approximately 0.2 standard deviations.
While restrictions on movement may be necessary to stop the spread of deadly diseases like COVID-19, the researchers' work helps quantify the costs of the social isolation associated with it.
“Mental Health Costs of Lockdowns: Evidence from Age-Specific Curfews in Turkey” appears in the April 2022 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.