Last month, some positive statistics came out of Japan. The nation, which has one of the highest suicide rates of the OECD countries, saw suicide figures for April 2020 down by 20% compared to 2019.
This is the biggest drop in Japan’s suicide rate for five years, and comes at a time when the rate was expected to rise as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Many suicide prevention organisations across the country were not operational during April because of stay-at-home measures. People were confined to their homes after Japan declared a state of emergency on 16 April.
Mental health experts have been speculating on the decline in suicides. Some have concluded that the lockdown has relieved pressure on Japanese people of all ages. Those who would typically have endured a stressful commute to an office where they would have been expected to work long hours no longer have to do that. The country’s schoolchildren have seen the start of their academic year (which commences in April in Japan) postponed, leading to a decline in school-related pressures. These may just be speculations, but it seems that lockdown has yielded some positive effects.
And it’s not just in Japan that lockdown’s positives have been observed. While many reports comment on the detrimental effects of lockdown on people’s mental health, with reasons such as financial pressures, loneliness, fear of infection and low moods all cited, other studies have observed that lockdowns appear to be improving mental health for some people.
There are many reasons that a person may feel better during lockdown (just as there are many that could make them feel worse) and not all of them can be applied universally. But there are a few simple things that may be contributing to improved mindsets everywhere. For example, people are reporting decreases in insomnia and anxiety that keeps them up at night - and perhaps there is something even simpler that is enabling people to get a proper night’s sleep: time.
Indeed, during lockdown many of us have more time for things that, though essential, are often neglected. Whether that’s allowing ourselves to sleep the requisite number of hours, ensuring we spend enough time unwinding and relaxing, or enjoying quality, uninterrupted hours with our families. Many of us will have noticed that the pace of life has slowed in recent weeks - and this is having considerable benefits.
And we might just have grown used to these benefits. The BBC reports on the rising phenomenon of anxiety about post-lockdown life; people explain how the anticipation of readjusting to ‘normal’ life weighs heavily upon them. Another thing people fear is going back to all the things they once did and have not done for so long. Things like ploughing through a crammed work and social schedule, networking with colleagues or undertaking a stressful morning commute once more.
So, are we prepared to admit that there have been several upsides to these strange times? Are we willing to hold on to these and try to make the transition out of lockdown, however and whenever it arises, as smooth as possible?
As Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian observes, lockdown has made the ‘impossible seem possible’. Things like the state paying people’s wages through the furlough scheme, or huge reductions in working hours across several sectors might once have been seen as pie-in-the-sky, but these initiatives are having considerable success. The hints that part-time furloughing may begin from August indicate that once and for all, workers might be able to work fewer hours but for decent wages - enabling a quality of life not seen before in the UK. As Hinsliff also observes, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that turned a six day week into just five days, so that available work could be shared around. We should hope that this example is being carefully studied now.
Because the things that have made people happier throughout lockdown should not be seen as merely silver linings in tricky times; they are a blueprint for what will make society work and cooperate as we head into a ‘new normal’. Financial security through the furlough scheme has been a lifeline for so many, and has allayed much of the anxiety and financial burden that people might otherwise have experienced. The reduction in stress through flexible working, or reduced hours that others have experienced has also been beneficial.
But for all those who have benefitted, others have suffered. The threat of looming redundancy is on the horizon for many, while universal credit claims have soared sixfold. Though some have benefitted from home-working, over half of British workers are feeling more stressed as a result of it. Unable to disconnect from the virtual office, workers are on average clocking more than 28 hours of overtime each month.
So, we need to look at what the positives have been for so many, and make sure they are universally applied. This is a difficult time for all, but it will not have been for nothing if we learn from what went right as well as what we did wrong. Let us look at mental health improvements, better working conditions and stable income, and make sure we don’t loosen our hold on these benefits - which genuinely better society as a whole. Let’s learn to leave the negatives by the wayside as we move on into a strange new world, and work on ways to keep the improvements we have seen alive.