Financial stress during lockdown is having a greater cost on people's mental health than exposure to COVID-19, according to a new longitudinal study from The Australian National University (ANU).
Researchers found rates of people with clinical level anxiety and depression were double normal population levels during Australia's initial lockdown in March 2020, and the spike was related to pandemic-induced financial and social problems.
The researchers also warn Australia could see another spike in anxiety and depression with an impending change to JobSeeker rates.
"We took a snapshot of Australia's mental health and it is worrying," lead ANU researcher Dr Amy Dawel said.
"Financial, social and work disruptions caused by the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic have significantly impaired our nation's mental health - doubling rates of anxiety and depression.
"These findings provide clear evidence that minimising social and financial disruption during the pandemic should be a central goal of public health policy."
The researchers suggest continued targeted financial support for those experiencing financial strain.
"We know from this study the changes to JobKeeper and JobSeeker could have a big impact on the nation's mental health," Dr Dawel said.
The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of almost 1,300 Australian adults between 28-31 March 2020, when international borders had just closed and there were fresh restrictions on restaurants, bars and social gatherings.
"Looking at people's mental health during the acute phase is important because fear about potential exposure to infection, loss of employment, and financial strain are all likely to increase psychological distress in the broader population," Dr Dawel said.
"This distress may be further exacerbated in vulnerable individuals, including those who have experienced prior traumatic events, such as the bushfires."
The study states: "Our results suggest that, at a population level, disruption to social and work functioning due to COVID-19 were more strongly associated with decrements in mental health than amount of disease contact."
Researchers say the results highlight that epidemics may cause widespread problems for community mental health, which extend well beyond those affected directly by disease.
"We found that it was financial distress caused by job loss, rather than job loss itself, that impacted people's mental health," Dr Dawel said.
"This finding implies governments can help support community mental health by providing quick and adequate financial support in times like these, to see people through periods of unemployment."
The study is published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.