Nearly 40% of people with mood disorder had worsening

An international study has found a link between the first Covid lockdown and worsening mental health for people with mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry questioned 997 people, with just over half of them (521) in New Zealand.

Other countries taking part were Australia, Scotland, Canada, the United States and the Netherlands.

Of those questioned, 40 percent reported moderate to severe depression during the lockdown in 2020.

Researcher for the New Zealand part of the study and head of the department of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, Richard Porter, said those with mood disorders are vulnerable to disruptions in their circadian rhythms, the body’s rhythm over a 24-hour period.

He said the rhythms are disrupted if a person’s social interactions are disrupted, as was the case in lockdown.

”It really is a very important part of the way the body functions.”

”It is set mainly by light but also by all sorts of social interactions and things that happen for people at the same time each day.”

Porter said while only 12 percent of participants self-reported minimal depressive feelings from Covid-19 disruption to their circadian rhythms, 20 percent reported having mild depression; 27 percent moderate depression; 21 percent moderate-to-severe depression and 18 percent severe depression.

“The fact that nearly 40 percent of these already vulnerable people reported their symptoms as moderate to severe raises concern.”

Prof Richard Porter, Otago University

Prof Richard Porter
Photo: Supplied / Otago University

He said with the potential prospect of future lockdowns, more emphasis is needed from a public health standpoint to help people with mood disorders better regulate their circadian rhythms and maintain good mental health.

Porter said participants in the study reported the worst causes of Covid-19 disruption as an inability to go to work, forced isolation at home, not being able to socialise as normal, and struggling to maintain their usual eating and sleeping patterns.

These factors negatively affected mental health such as their general mood, outlook on life, positivity and irritability levels.

He said practical responses, such as giving those most at risk the tips, tools and strategies to allow them to better support their circadian rhythms and mental health should be a priority for health professionals delivering their care.

Psychotherapy is being used to help regulate social and circadian rhythms – with participants recording meal times, social interactions, sleep and waking times, to better scaffold and regularise their activities and support circadian patterns.

The use of light therapy is also being trialled, as well as the use of blue-blocking glasses before sleep to help suppress melatonin secretion.

Porter said helping your body clock to stay on track during major life disruptions such as the Covid-19 pandemic may help you feel better.

He has provided are some easy tips for improving the regularity of daily routines, even when nothing about your life feels regular.

  • Set up a routine for yourself while you are in quarantine or working from home. Routines help stabilise body clocks
  • Get up at the same time every day. A regular wake time is the most important input for stabilising your body clock
  • Make sure you spend some time outdoors every day, especially in the early morning. Your body clock needs to “see” light in the morning to know “when” it is.
  • If you can’t go outside try to spend at least two hours next to a window, looking into the daylight, and focusing on being calm.
  • Set times for a few regular activities each day such as home tutoring, telephone calls with a friend, or cooking. Do these activities at the same time each day

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