What a second coronavirus lockdown could do to mental health

Korin Miller
·Writer
A top mental health official warns there could be an increase in the number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse, in addition to more general mental health stressors, if the U.S. goes through a second COVID-19 lockdown (Design: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
A top mental health official warns there could be an increase in the number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse, in addition to more general mental health stressors, if the U.S. goes through a second COVID-19 lockdown (Design: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

Officials in Los Angeles are weighing a second stay-at-home order after the city and surrounding areas experienced surges in confirmed cases of COVID-19.  

On July 22 alone, Los Angeles County saw 3,266 new cases of the virus, according to data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Now, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is warning that the city is close to having another stay-at-home order to help cope with the new increase in cases. On Sunday, Garcetti said that a decision will likely come in the next week or two while public health officials try to figure out if restrictions that were put in place in late June and July, including closing bars and indoor restaurant dining, will help, the Los Angeles Times says.

New York City mayor Andrew Cuomo also warned citizens last month that a second lockdown isn’t off the table. “We are not going to go back to that dark place,” he said, per Bloomberg. (Worth noting: The city saw 65 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on July 21; At the height of the city’s outbreak, there were 6,378 new cases in one day.)

It seems inconceivable, but experts say a second lockdown may be needed. “If the cases continue to rise, then I think a second lockdown will be inevitable,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “It is quite concerning — especially in California — where they have been very aggressive with mask-wearing and social distancing, and yet the situation remains dire.”

The hope with a second lockdown, Watkins says, is that it will “ease the pressure on hospitals.” As for its potential impact on reducing the spread of the virus in the general public, it “remains to be seen,” Watkins says. But public health officials previously warned that another lockdown could be terrible for mental health.

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse, said in a Cabinet meeting in May that there could be an increase in the number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse, in addition to more general mental health stressors, if the United States goes through a second COVID-19 lockdown.

“I would very much hope that we would not do this again. I don’t see the science to back it up,” she said of a shutdown, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We need to discuss the risks versus the benefits of taking action, and I would say we wouldn’t want to take the same approach.”

It’s important to point out that China has imposed a second Wuhan-style lockdown in the country’s northeastern region after the area saw a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

But there’s a chance that things won’t get to a full-on lockdown level again, either in Los Angeles County or elsewhere. “It’s going to be very difficult to do a blanket shut-down order. I think what we’ll see is much more precision-guided social distancing recommendations and not another type of shutdown,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “I could see certain counties making recommendations based on where transmission is occurring based on epidemiological data.”

Among other things, Adalja says that he doesn’t think a second lockdown would even be effective. “These orders rely on compliance and compliance may not be as high as it was early on,” he says. “There’s a lot of quarantine fatigue and there are people who won’t want to do it.”

But, again, there are clearly serious talks about imposing another lockdown, especially in areas like Los Angeles County, where cases continue to surge despite new restrictions. That raises a huge question: What does this mean for mental health?

“A second lockdown will be taken as very defeating for the public. The feeling will prevail that the virus will win, and it will stimulate hopelessness and great despair,” John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “I am already hearing patients say for the first time, ‘This will never end,’ ‘It doesn’t look like this will end anytime soon,’ and other pessimistic statements.”

Mayer says that, as a doctor, he “supports the need for this” but, he warns, “it will be emotionally crippling.”

“People are already struggling with isolation and quarantine fatigue. They’re feeling overwhelmed,” Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It will be hard to adapt back to ‘normal’ life and then have to go back to lockdown.” 

Change is difficult for most people, Gallagher says, and it’s concerning that there’s so much change in such a small period of time. “Hopefully, we will adapt slowly to real life so that if we have to go back to lockdown, it won’t feel as jarring,” she says. But doing a second lockdown “can make people feel like it’s endless,” she says, adding, “the uncertainty of it all is going to be more difficult a second time.” That can even trigger mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, she says.

People may even have physical symptoms. Weight gain and lethargy are common in times like this, Gallagher says.

While it can feel overwhelming to even think about the idea of a second lockdown, it doesn’t need to. “I keep telling patients, ‘We are much better at handling these things than we think,’” Gallagher says. “Keep telling yourself that ‘I’ve done this once, I can do it again.’” 

The fact that we all have been through lockdown before can actually work in our favor, Gallagher says. “The skills we’ve developed to adapt to this will help us adapt to lockdown life again,” she says.

Gallagher encourages people to “hold loosely” to things that are happening now and accept that there will be a lot of uncertainty in the coming weeks, months and even years. “It’s so easy to get ahead of ourselves and wonder, ‘When can I go to this event?’ or ‘When can I go on vacation?’” she says. “Instead, enjoy the nice weather on days when you have it, and look at the aspects of quarantine you can enjoy.”

Accepting that another lockdown may happen is important, Mayer says. “Don’t try and deny or fight against it,” he says. Gallagher recommends that everyone mentally prepare for another lockdown but warns against obsessing over it. “It’s not necessarily going to happen. Leaning into the uncertainty is important,” she says.

And if you find that you’re struggling mentally, reach out to a mental health professional. “Now is a great time to find a therapist — virtually,” Gallagher says.

Get general information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area. Contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727). Speak to a live person, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET.

This story was originally published on May 21, 2020 at 3:30 p.m. ET and has been updated to include new information.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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