Strong lockdowns to control COVID-19 pandemic have been enforced globally and strongly restricted social activities with consequent negative effects on mental health. Japan has effectively implemented a unique voluntary policy to control COVID-19, but the mental health impact of the policy has not been examined on a large scale. In this study, we examined the effect of the first declaration on the mental health of affected residents. We used population-level questionnaire data of 17,400 people living under the state of emergency and 9208 who were not through a social-networking-service app and applied a difference-in-differences regression model to estimate the causal effect of the declaration of the state of emergency on psychological wellbeing, stratified by job category. No statistically significant effect of the declaration was observed among all job categories. This suggests that residents’ psychological situation has gradually changed, possibly influenced by other factors such as the surrounding environment, rather than the declaration itself. Given that Japan has a unique policy to control COVID-19 instead of a strict lockdown, our results showed the Japanese-style policy may serve as a form of harm reduction strategy, to control the epidemic with minimal psychological harm, and enable a policy that balances disease control and mental health. Caution is necessary that this study used self-reported data from a limited time period before and after the first declaration in April 2020.
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