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December 11, 2020

Lockdown Consequences Include Our Mental Health

COVID-19 has caused great disruption to our everyday routines and to our mental well-being.

Over the last several months, there’s been plenty of debate about whether a V-shaped economic recovery was possible, as “15 days to slow the spread” turned into months, and millions of Americans lost their jobs. The rebound was not quite a V, of course, especially for retail and restaurant workers. Moreover, the worry about finding or even keeping one’s job, combined with the unexpected additional tasks of homeschooling, wearing masks, and socially distancing, has taken its toll on our collective mental health.

It’s a subject we’ve touched on before, when our Thomas Gallatin observed the growing health consequences from the then-two-month-old pandemic lockdown. With the passage of time, more of the consequences are becoming evident. For example, we can now see that the expected baby boom from last spring’s shelter-in-place order isn’t happening everywhere.

But the coronavirus has sentenced the most vulnerable of us to a virtual house arrest for more than eight months now, and their despair has been on display in the form of increased suicide rates, higher alcoholism rates, and other self-destructive behaviors. Now we have more empirical evidence of this depression, as an annual Gallup Health and Healthcare poll taken in November shows the number of people who self-evaluated their mental well-being as “good” or “excellent” fell to its lowest level since the poll was instituted in 2001. In one year, that combined figure fell from 85% to 76%. And as the pollsters warned, “Previous research from Gallup’s ongoing COVID-19 tracking survey in April found that although majorities of Americans said they could continue following social distancing guidelines as long as necessary before their physical health and financial situation suffered, less than half said the same of their mental health.”

While we may joke about today’s date being March 286th, our lives and routines have genuinely been upended. Many kids no longer go to school, workers who can do so toil from home, and all the extra activities in a family’s life — sports, proms, graduations — have been postponed or canceled. In certain ways, people have adapted — witness the new phenomenon of the “fake commute.” It’s also worth noting that the lone subgroup that didn’t register a decline in mental health in the Gallup poll were those who regularly go to church. Out of all 19 groups measured, weekly church attendees had the highest percentage of those rating their mental health as “excellent” at 46%. (This, of course, assumes they can still go to church every week; it’s unclear whether virtual church counts in the category.)

But humans can only be isolated for so long before they lose out to despair — or rebel.

“While public officials are busy cracking down on freedom using a viral pandemic as their justification, another pandemic comes chopping and reaping, this one caused by the extreme measures that have produced no beneficial results,” note the editors of Issues & Insights. They add, “Both the elected and unelected who have brought this on need to be held accountable.”

And, as if to reiterate their point, they argue, “Thanks to power-mad, narcissistic, risk-averse, cowardly me-too public officials, America and other nations under lockdowns are suffering emotionally. … Shut-it-down officials are the worst among us, the last people who should be making decisions about others’ lives.”

It’s rare that our federalist system has shown the divide in America so clearly. In some states, restaurants are open, sports are being played, and — aside from the mandates to mask up — things are relatively close to the pre-pandemic normal. On the other side of the wire, people are being ordered to stay home for the holidays, and small businesses are being shuttered, many of them never to reopen.

Those grounded in faith know that there will be something on the other side of this pandemic, although we can’t be certain of how it will arrive or what form it will take. Perhaps we get all the way back to where we were before, although there are some pandemic-induced innovations we may not mind keeping around, such as working from home (faux commute or not).

More likely, though, there will be a little piece of our complacency lost, just like those who survived the Great Depression never forgot the financial lessons they learned the hard way. In this case, the lesson may need to be one of maintaining our freedom. But we have to get it back first.

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