COVID-19 isolation measures can elevate mental health risks: UBC researchers

Nov 20 2020, 2:00 pm

COVID-19 isolation and quarantine measures can cause an increase in mental health risks, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia say.

While the health measures are critical to stopping the spread of the virus, UBC researchers found that people’s mental health has generally worsened during the pandemic.

The study, which was done in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association, surveyed 3,000 adults. The data showed that those who spent time in voluntary self-isolation or mandated quarantine felt mental health impacts more intensely.

Thirty-seven percent of participants reported having worse mental health after the pandemic started, according to the study. The number rises to 54% among people who had to self-isolate because they experienced virus-related symptoms.

Twenty-eight percent of people who quarantined because they’d come into contact with a symptomatic individual reported experiencing recent suicidal thoughts – the highest rate of those surveyed.

According to researchers, 5% of people who had not quarantined or self-isolated reported recent suicidal thoughts.

Those who had to isolate themselves because they were experiencing symptoms themselves had the highest self-harm rates at 9%, compared to 1% of those who didn’t have to quarantine or self-isolate.

However, researchers say people who quarantined after recent travel did not have significantly worse mental health or an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

“People who quarantine due to potential direct exposure are clearly dealing with greater levels of distress,” said Emily Jenkins, an assistant professor of nursing at UBC, who was one of the study’s principal investigators.

“They aren’t necessarily having COVID-19 symptoms, but they may be very concerned about stigma should they have a positive result.”

Other factors that may be a detriment to mental health are a fear of being cut off from friends and family or being unable to provide care for a loved one, Jenkins said. The process of quarantining itself may also contribute.

As cases spike across the country, and quarantine and isolation orders along with them, researchers say their findings have implications for public health.

“We’re really advocating for some shifts in the way things are done and the practices related to surveillance,” said Jenkins. “We want to make sure that there are strategies to mitigate some of the potential mental health harms associated with these measures.”

The researchers suggest that health care providers build mental health check-ins into the process when instructing someone to quarantine or self-isolate.

Individuals who complete a quarantine or isolation period should receive a mental health assessment, as researchers say that the associated emotional and psychological challenges can continue even after the period is over.

“We need to be responsive to these types of stressors when using quarantine and isolation measures to fight this pandemic,” said Jenkins.

“It’s going to be more important than ever to protect Canadians’ well-being and manage the constant element of fear and uncertainty that people are experiencing.”

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