COVID-19 and our mental health

There is no correct response to the COVID-19 crisis. Any and all actions we adopt will have a mix of good, bad and uncertain consequences. Take the need to ‘lockdown’ our social and economic life for example. The government is being heavily criticised (probably quite correctly) for failing to apply this lockdown early enough. Countries that did adopt this measure hard and fast appear to have suffered a much reduced death rate. So, on the surface at least, such a response would appear to have been a good thing, and I have no wish (for the time being) to question or interrogate this aspect of it. However, there are obvious downsides to it. Perhaps the most obvious is the financial hit that many workers and small businesses are taking. Whilst this particular hit is being mitigated by the government’s socialist measures (oh the irony) there is another for which, so far, I see no response at all. The nation’s mental health.

Last Saturday (16th May, 2020) The Guardian reported that “People with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems for the first time as a result of the lockdown”. The most obvious causes for this, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, are “growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement.” Now arguably the government could have reduced the number of people suffering bereavement by introducing the lockdown sooner, and they have, to some degree at least, off set the potential number of job losses. But what could they possibly do to reduce the effects of social isolation? After all, that’s the actual point of lockdown. By restricting our contact with others we restrict the ability for the virus to spread through the community. It’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.

The problem is that humans, at their very core, are social beings. As I’ve said on so many occasions, we are not the individuals depicted by classical economic theory. We are not self-contained rational beings who choose to come together to achieve certain ends. Whilst physically / biologically we are individual entities, psychologically and socially we are inter-subjective and highly interdependent. Basically we are, and only can be, who we are because of our relations with others. Our subjectivity is not something we are born with. Whilst certain predispositions are present at birth (though genetically selected through the accumulated intersubjectivity of previous generations) how they develop is highly dependent on social circumstances and relationships. It seems obvious to me that suddenly reducing these social relationships to those permitted by the lockdown may well trigger traumatic responses in many people.

The other side of this relative social isolation, of course, is that those relationships that remain, those involving the others who you are living with during the period of lockdown, come under the spotlight light of intensive scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, these remaining relationships expand to fill the social vacuum. This can place an obvious strain on many of them. By expanding in this way not only are these remaining relationships stretched to possible breaking point, but the counter balance of outside relationships have been removed. Conversely, of course, the testing of these relationships in this way may show them to be very strong and resilient. I feel very thankful that my personal experience of the lockdown has been very positive in this respect.

Another aspect that concerns me is the development of possible anxiety about returning ‘to normal’. Here I’m thinking about the possible psychological responses of returning to social situations that we have quickly become accustomed to thinking of as dangerous. For example, there has been a lot of discussion this week about the gradual reopening of schools. Now, quite correctly in my view, teachers and their unions have been raising concerns about their safety – about their exposure to infection from the children they are teaching. Even if children are as resilient to infection as some people claim, they can still be carriers of the virus, and it will surely be very difficult for teachers to wear full PPE and / or adopt strict social distancing. So how will teachers feel about returning to school? What levels of anxiety will they experience? What will be the long term effects of low, but constant, levels of anxiety? And conversely, what will be the long term effects on children being taught under such clinical conditions?

I have no answers to these questions. I am not a psychologist, and in the end we may prove to be far more psychologically robust than I think. I really do hope that this is the case. But we should also be prepared for a psychological after shock. As the popular mantra goes: we should hope for best but prepare for the worst. This not only means having the necessary professional support available for those of us who may need it, it means being prepared to talk openly about our mental health in the same way as we are about our physical health. And it means being as empathetic as we can to the concerns and worries of others.

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