Spot the Melburnian: How months of lockdown will change our behaviour

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To help stop Ali Lowe’s two small sons from worrying about “the germ”, she invented a game to play at the shops while following Melbourne’s strict COVID-19 restrictions. They became a team of hand sanitiser connoisseurs, judging each dollop of disinfecting goop they poured onto their hands.

The 29-year-old graduate teacher said she made up the game because she was aware that children who worried a lot of the time might later experience psychological problems.

Hand sanitiser connoisseurs: Ali Lowe and her two sons Nullah, 3, (in green top) and Jasper, 4.Credit:Simon Schluter

“I've really kept … the fear and the hype away from them strategically,” Ms Lowe said. “I just try and keep it light for the kids.”

But the single mother from Edithvale cannot sugarcoat the experience of Melbourne's 112-day lockdown. She said it was brutal at times, so much so that she sought a special exemption to see a friend even before the buddy system was introduced. And she battled her own worry about whether her four-year-old son Jasper would be ready to start school next year after missing months of kindergarten.

The second lockdown took a heavier toll on Melburnians' mental health than the first. We had almost four more months of state-imposed isolation than the rest of the country, including a curfew, 23 hours a day indoors and mask wearing. More than 800 of the more than 900 dead nationally have been Victorians.

Habits take about a month to form, and because lockdown went on so long, psychologists believe it could have a lasting impact on some people’s behaviour and relationships.

“In the first lockdown, or even early in the second lockdown, it was hard for a lot of people not to hug and not to shake hands; now it's second nature,” said University of Melbourne clinical psychologist Nicholas Van Dam. Some would go back to it only for people they had a particularly close relationship with, he said.

A recent Swinburne University survey of more than 5500 people nationally found young adults aged between 18 and 24 were the most likely to see ongoing problems, because their brains were not yet fully developed and their behaviours within relationships were still maturing, according to co-author and neuropsychologist Susan Rossell.

“We could see a whole pile of immature youth, where they're having real problems with intimacy [and] getting into bad relationships, because they've had this period of almost a year where they haven't been able … to test things out,” she said.

Some, particularly those living alone and isolated, could be prone to developing mental health problems including agoraphobia – the fear of leaving one's house.

Not only have Melburnians been socially distant, we have been politically divided. Anger towards Premier Daniel Andrews has mounted over the hotel quarantine debacle, and as the city’s lockdown dragged on. This in turn incensed his supporters. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories have spread faster on social media than the virus.

As a result, Dr Van Dam said the increased polarisation had probably caused rifts within families and ended friendships, “particularly in the second lockdown, where you see these extreme reactions – and it is getting pretty nasty”.

Ali Lowe says lockdown was tough but she’s optimistic about the future.Credit:Simon Schluter

Australian Childhood Foundation chief executive Joe Tucci said children overhearing disputes or conspiracy theories were susceptible to losing trust in adults, which could also lead to long-term mental health problems.

“What kids saw during the bushfires was communities coming together, pitching in and helping,” he said. “They are [now] seeing people fighting and disagreeing. I worry about it.”

A feature of lockdown for many has been low social contact, which suppresses hormone production, according to Professor Rossell. The biological effect is an increase in anger, sadness and frustration. It could take a while for people’s hormones to right themselves, she said, so some might remain cautious in relationships for a while.

As one five-year-old, Sebastian Black, told his mother recently: "I can't remember how to be a friend."

Dr Tucci said that while small children who had missed out on creche or swimming lessons would probably adapt quickly as Melbourne emerged from lockdown, children who had missed milestone years such as prep, grade six and year 12, might struggle unless ways to mark the occasions were found.

Professor Rossell said prioritising fun and returning to our cultural and sporting events would be an important part of the recovery process.

Dr Tucci said parents' reassurance would be key to mitigating risk to children and campaigns would be needed to encourage those struggling to get help. “Just like after a bushfire, we go in and we rebuild the houses, we rebuild the sense of community, we're going to have to rebuild … after the firestorm of COVID,” he said.

Ms Lowe plans to ease out of lockdown slowly, but she no longer worries about Jasper falling behind in prep as “all the kids are in the same boat”. And she is optimistic about Melbourne’s future.

“We lost our laughter this year with the Comedy Festival being cancelled," she said. "All of the commonality, the things that brought us together, the big markets, the quintessential Melbourne activities – they've been gone.

“[But] we will recover. Can you imagine the AFL grand final when it's back in Victoria? That is going to be such a special day.”

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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