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Pandemic plunging Israelis into depression, depleting ‘bounce back’ ability

A third of Israelis have high anxiety and one in five has high levels of depression, study indicates, with young adults hit hardest

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: People wearing face masks walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on December 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: People wearing face masks walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on December 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The pandemic is plunging huge numbers of Israelis into depression and anxiety, a recent major study has found, revealing that young adults are surprisingly taking the biggest hit.

Israel styles itself as the hardy nation that can overcome any crisis, but in the pandemic there has been “severe damage to the public’s mental resilience,” and the normal “bounce back” seen after other crises like terror waves isn’t happening, according to Tel Aviv University researchers.

Their project is attracting interest among psychologists internationally who see it as a case study with relevance beyond Israel, as it is one of the few to track the mental state of hundreds of people both before and during the pandemic. The latest findings are being prepared for peer-review and publication in a journal.

At the last assessment, during the height of the October lockdown, some 29 percent of people said they are struggling with high anxiety and 20% said they are experiencing high levels of depression. Before the pandemic the figures were 12% and 9% respectively, based on a 2018 measure, and researchers saw a continuous rise in measurements taken after the first lockdown, between lockdown, and during the second lockdown.

A depressed woman (kieferpix via iStock by Getty Images)

The research found that contrary to popular belief, health concerns are a relatively small source of the pressure people are feeling. Just 5% of the 804-strong sample think health represents the biggest threat, while 30% feel it is political instability and 20% think it is finances.

Bruria Adini, the emergency medicine specialist leading the ongoing survey, said she hoped to see the classically-Israeli “bounce back” effect, with problems easing soon after an intense wave of virus cases subsides, but said that instead, her stats show that the mental health crisis is steadily getting worse.

Bruria Adini, emergency medicine specialist from Tel Aviv University (courtesy of Bruria Adini)

“What concerns us isn’t just the figures but the fact that when lockdowns end and coronavirus waves subside, anxiety and depression keeps going up and people don’t seem to find hope that the future is getting better,” she told The Times of Israel.

“The trends are going up and up, it’s impacting on families, society and employment, and this needs to be taken care of by policymakers. I don’t want to be alarmist, but I do want to say that it needs to taken in to account in policies.”

The research comes on the heels of another Tel Aviv University study which found that 1 in 3 Israelis engage in the anxious habits of teeth grinding and/or jaw clenching during lockdown.

Adini, head of her university’s Emergency Management and Disaster Medicine department, said that her study’s observation about the age pattern of mental health impact, in particular, should translate to clear policy steps.

“Leaders realize that we need to protect the senior citizens during the pandemic, and they are right, but we found older citizens have lower depression and anxiety compared to the 31 to 40 age bracket.

“You would expect this younger group to be resilient, but they have a higher increase in depression than older people. This shows policymakers it’s not enough to think about how to care for senior citizens, but rather real effort has to be put into caring for younger people.

“And the figures suggest that this age-group faces real concerns: instability regarding the children, with disruption to school and schedules, and on a deeper level, if you think your children are being impacted emotionally and cognitively this has an impact.”

A stressed mother during lockdown (Sam Thomas via iStock by Getty Images)

Adini said the fact that politics and economics are cited as bigger causes of pressure than health concerns indicates that leaders should broaden the conversation they have with the public from talking about hospitals and vaccine hopes to tackle their broader anxieties.

“Leaders need to consider that they tend to only speak about the health crisis, but if they want to get the compliance of the population they have to take account of what is actually worrying the public most,” she commented.

Some of the aspects of the pandemic’s handling, such as the last-minute nature of directives, has accentuated the stress felt by the public, Adini suggested.

“People shouldn’t be waiting for late late news regarding what’s happening with their children or their workplace the next day,” she said. “If everything would be clearer, that would impact on the level of trust.”

Addressing the findings is important for the nation’s mental health, but also to fighting coronavirus spread, she said, arguing: “Above all, the more that people suffer from symptoms of depression, the less motivated and willing they are to cooperate and comply with the government’s mandates on social distancing or other restrictions.”

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