Post-traumatic stress, confusion and anger: How quarantine affects your mental health
Stressed woman -- Shutterstock

Life in quarantine can negatively affect your mental health, causing post-traumatic stress, confusion and even anger, a new study from King’s College London shows. But by getting uncensored access to up-to-date information, staying in touch with loved ones and keeping active on social media, researchers believe these negative effects can be staved off.

The study, “The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence”, was published in The Lancet medical journal in February. It comes as country after country – including badly-hit China, Italy, France and Spain – have ordered its populations into lockdown to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“Quarantine is often an unpleasant experience for those who undergo it. Separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects,” the seven researchers, who are all associated with the department of psychological medicine at King’s College London, wrote.

The researchers have based their findings on 24 studies previously carried out in 10 countries that have quarantined parts of their populations after the outbreak of deadly viruses, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, H1N1 influenza (swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and equine influenza (horse flu).

Can lead to addictions

In the SARS studies that were looked at, more than 20 percent of the people quarantined after having been in close contact with suspected SARS cases reported having feelings of fear, while 18 percent said they felt nervous, 18 percent sad and 10 percent guilty. Others reported having symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS). One study showed that people quarantined for longer than 10 days “showed significantly higher post-traumatic stress symptoms” than those who were isolated for a shorter period of time.

Living in quarantine can also have long-term negative effects, including the development of alcohol abuse and other dependency symptoms. Two studies looking into the quarantine effects linked to the SARS virus showed that some health-care workers had developed dependency symptoms which persisted as long as three years after the SARS outbreak.

The study also showed that the development of such symptoms may be amplified if those in quarantine lack access to health-care and basic necessities. But other factors come into play as well. “Fake news and media can fuel anxiety by citing contradictory expert opinion,” Professor Neil Greenberg, one of the authors of the study, told FRANCE 24.  “They not only make it more difficult for people to cope with their isolation, but to cope with the pandemic itself,” Greenberg said.

He added that the socio-economic effects of a pandemic also heavily weigh on people’s mental health. “Serious financial difficulties can lead to mental health problems,” he said.

So how do you deal?

Aside from listing the negative effects of life under quarantine, the researchers also presented a list of things that can help offset - or even prevent - the psychological consequences of isolation caused by quarantining.

Provide those who are quarantined with “as much information as possible”, the researchers noted, so that they clearly understand the risks they would face if they were not isolated, as well as the reasons why they have been quarantined.

“Reinforcing that quarantine is helping to keep others safe, including those particularly vulnerable (such as those who are very young, old, or with preexisting serious medical conditions), and that health authorities are genuinely grateful to them, can only help to reduce the mental health effect and adherence in those quarantined,” they wrote.

They also recommended setting up a telephone hotline or an online service dedicated to answering questions about the illness in question and as to what people should do should they develop any symptoms. “This service would show those who are quarantined that they have not been forgotten and that their health needs are just as important as those of the wider public.”

Stay occupied

Aside from ensuring that those who are quarantined have access to basic necessities like food and medicine, the study said authorities need prioritise  giving people the appropriate tools, like uncensored internet access and smartphones, to stave off boredom. This helps reduce both anxiety and distress. “You have to let people stay in touch with their friends and family, as well as with their colleagues, via email, social media and video conferences and so on,” Greenberg told FRANCE 24.

Greenberg also said it was important for people in quarantine to keep a healthy life style. “This is a time to try to sleep well, eat healthy, exercise as much as possible and avoid unhealthy habits like drinking or smoking too much, or gambling.”

Finally, the study warned authorities against extending quarantines. “The authorities need to respect the duration of a quarantine and not extend it. Doing the opposite would be particularly harmful to mental health,” Greenberg said.

This article was adapted from the original in French.