A ‘psychological pandemic’ due to the lockdown, what are the effects and risk factors?


The phenomenon known as a 'psychological pandemic' identifies the collective amount of stress due to lockdowns and restrictive measures in containing the Covid-19 virus, and its impact on mental health on a global scale.

However, to date, no studies had investigated the effects of the lockdown on cognitive functioning, particularly on mental abilities such as memory, attention, and concentration in daily life, until now.

A research team from the University of Padua, in collaboration with IRCCS Santa Lucia in Rome, recently published their work in the journal ‘PLOS ONE’ entitled Cognitive and mental health changes and their vulnerability factors related to COVID-19 lockdown in Italy.

Researchers sought to answer some questions:

Have the lockdown and related restrictive measures made an impact on the cognitive functioning and mental health of the Italian people?

"During the last phase of the first lockdown (April 29 and May 17, 2020) a total of 1215 Italians participated in our online survey. We found that subjective cognitive functioning and mental health had severely changed in association with the lockdown,” explains Giorgia Cona, research coordinator from the Department of General Psychology of the University of Padua and the Padua Neuroscience Center. “During restrictive periods and isolation, people complained of a greater level of cognitive difficulties in daily activities that required attention/concentration, temporal orientation, and executive functions (such as multitasking, planning, and the management of home activities). Interestingly, we observed a memory improvement. In fact, less forgetfulness was reported during the lockdown, probably due to a reduction in commitments and a less hectic lifestyle. However, what we did find was an increase in the severity and prevalence of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, as well as changes in appetite and libido. Noting that 36% of those who participated in the survey reported symptoms of anxiety and 32% reported symptoms of depression during the lockdown."

Are there any risk factors that allow us to identify the most vulnerable?

"Being female, under 45 years, working from home or being underemployed were all identified as relevant risk factors for worsening cognition and mental health," says Eleonora Fiorenzato from the Department of General Psychology at the University of Padua and first author of the study. "Additionally, frequently consuming COVID-19 mass media information has caused an 'infodemic' (information/epidemic) and residents in highly infected communities hold an increased level of risk factors for depression and anxiety disorders, particularly hypochondria. Interestingly, cognitive difficulties that are correlated with psychological disorders showed that the greater the psychological discomfort experienced, the level of perceived cognitive abilities also worsened."

If further restrictive measures are added to combat the epidemic, then the social and health policymakers should consider these most vulnerable groups. In particular, they must develop effective and stable responses to the cognitive and psychological problems associated with the pandemic. This data will also serve to implement targeted psychological support interventions and to define specific guidelines for the emerging problem in managing the COVID-19 infodemic.