Social distancing and public mental health: The impact of Covid-19 government responses on mental health


This study of the University of Vienna examined the impact of severe government interventions addressing the COVID-19 pandemic on public mental health.

In March 2020, the federal government passed several restrictions such as curfews, social distancing measures and cancelations of public events to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. These were intended to protect citizens from infection and to prevent the exhaustion of hospital capacities. While some of these government measures continue to be a part of everyday life, the question increasingly arises: what are the effects on people's mental health?

Communication scientists Florian Arendt, Antonia Markiewitz, Manina Mestas and Sebastian Scherr from the Universities of Vienna, Munich and Leuven conducted a study to examine the consequences of the first government responses to curb the pandemic in the spring of 2020 on the mental health of German and Austrian citizens, based on the use of crisis hotlines (telephone counselling services). The researchers analyzed the number of daily calls made to crisis hotlines and compared the data with the numbers of spring 2019. The rising number of calls was used as an indicator for public mental health. This indicator would show if stressors such as strict lockdown-measures elicit an increased strain on a given society's mental health. Notably, this is merely an indirect indicator, which is not able to measure direct effects on concepts such as depression, hopelessness or suicidality. Nevertheless, crisis hotline calls can be used as a basal indicator for stressors on a societal level, as literature shows.

The results show that the quantity of calls made to crisis hotlines in the spring of 2020 increased during the first nation-wide lockdown. The numbers substantially ascended particularly during the period when severe government measures were first introduced (curfews; travel restrictions; closing of retail stores, restaurants, schools and universities; cancellation of various events, etc.). The data from Austria further showed that the relaxation of government measures coincided with a descend in the number of crisis hotline calls in April. Relaxations instantly lead to a tendential return to a baseline number of crisis calls, without a lengthy delay.

As international studies show, severe measures have a positive, intended effect on the number of infections and therefore contribute to prevent the exhaustion of hospital capacities. Based on previously published evidence and the findings of the present study, the principal investigator Florian Arendt emphasizes that severe government measures are a threat to public's mental health. Therefore, "Governments and health officials are wise to thoroughly consider the tradeoff between the costs and benefits of specific severe measures". However, the results also show that "the negative effects may be dampened if the duration of such severe governmental restrictions is reduced to a minimum," according to Arendt's co-author Manina Mestas.

Publication details

Arendt, F., Markiewitz, A., Mestas, M., & Scherr, S. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic, government responses, and public mental health: Investigating consequences through crisis hotline calls in two countries. Social Science & Medicine, 265, 113532. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113532

The researchers compiled the daily number of phone calls made to national crisis hotlines in Austria (January through April 2020) and Germany (January through March 2020). These numbers were compared to the respective number of calls of the previous year. The change in crisis hotline calls was used as an indicator for public mental health. The number of hotline calls was thus compared to the timeline of introduction and repeal of government measures, to carefully draw conclusions about the impact of the restrictions on public mental health. (Image © Andrea Piacquadio)
Florian Arendt (Ph.D., University of Vienna) is a communication scientist working in the field of health communication. In general, his research addresses the role of the media in the health domain. His research operates at the intersection of communication/social science and medicine/public health. Behind the background that health communication scholarship is characterized by research in many different disciplines (e.g., communication, medicine, public health, and psychology), Florian mainly uses theory and methodology from communication science to contribute to these interdisciplinary research efforts.
Manina Mestas graduated at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna in 2013. Her master thesis dealt with the advertising effects of branded board games on children and was published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour in 2016. Since March 2020 Manina is a predoctoral researcher within the project "Reporting on Suicide in the Nineteenth Century: Large-Scale Content Analysis and an Investigation of Long-Term Imitative Werther Effects".