In December 2020, the PHAA co-convened a special edition virtual conference with the theme: preventing, detecting, controlling and managing COVID-19 – reflections on 2020 and future challenges.
This article is one of a series on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian community, as presented by experts to this special conference.
The following captures the impact of COVID on Australian women, and is based on a presentation by Professor Deb Loxton, Deputy Director of the globally significant Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH).
The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health started in 1996 and tracks four generations of more than 57,000 women, exploring a range of health outcomes.
Research on the impacts of COVID-19 on Australian women commenced in April 2020 with data collected online through a series of short surveys. Most surveys took no more than two minutes to complete, with one theme examined per survey.
Three cohorts were studied: women born from 1946-51 (aged 69-74), from 1973-78 (aged 42-47) and from 1989-95 (aged 25-31). More than 2,000 surveys were completed.
When women were asked how they responded when they had flu like symptoms, three in four who reported flu-like symptoms did not get tested for COVID-19. Older women were less likely to get tested (78.4%) compared to younger women (73.8%).
- I have looked into being tested but it wasn’t clear where to go (1989-95 cohort)
- …really worried I will get it but much too afraid to get tested in case I don’t have it and then get it at a test centre (1973-78 cohort)
- I had a cold. It was obviously a cold. No fever, no dry cough, just a head cold, and the way people treated me was horrible (1989-95 cohort)
- The test for COVID-19 was awful and I cried (1973-78 cohort)
Younger women were more likely to report COVID symptoms (26%) than older women (5%). Younger women also reported greater psychological distress than older women.
- I have a mild anxiety disorder and that has become exponentially worse during this period.
- I have not been depressed in years. This shutdown has brought it all back, I feel anxious, depressed, sad and angry all the time.
Some women, however, reported some benefits resulting from the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
- I have enjoyed the slowing down and time at home, especially in the garden (1989-95 cohort)
- More walking and outdoor activities are being done because we need to get out which is nice with family members (1973-78 cohort)
- I have enjoyed spending time at home catching up with long overdue tasks and gardening. An opportunity to not be feeling rushed and reflect on the most important things in life (1946-51 cohort)
Many women who had COVID-19 symptoms but chose not to get tested provided valuable insights into why they made the decisions they did. These included:
- The need to provide clearer information about the value of getting tested
- A clear description of how to get a COVID-19 test
- Reducing the unpleasant aspects of testing
- Alleviating the fear of catching COVID-19 at a testing centre.
The survey’s findings were clear that the mental health burden of the pandemic and restrictions is more prominent among younger women.
The survey also found key factors to alleviate the burden of the pandemic included social support and a range of outdoor activities, particularly for people in extended periods of isolation.