The effects of a global pandemic on mental health (and how to minimise them)
With most countries taking more or less drastic measures to try and contain the spreading of Coronavirus, we have all been duly informed of the demographics regarding the vulnerability to the infection: those over 65, already suffering from chronic illnesses or with a weakened immune system are being urged to be more vigilant in order to prevent the worst case scenario. However, we seem to be slightly neglecting another side of the outbreak, often failing to recognise and actively deal with the effects this situation might have on those struggling with some type of mental issue or dealing with a drug/alcohol addiction — something that could lead to a bigger outbreak of psychological malaise further contributing to generalised panic, preventing us from acting rationally and effectively.
It’s easy for us to panic. Even those who have never been officially diagnosed with a mental disorder feel scared and anxious — so it’s not hard to imagine the effects that a pandemic on a global scale like this has on people who have been less than mentally ok in the past. And the fear of getting sick (or losing a loved one) is only the tip of the iceberg: add a lack of access to affordable healthcare, an impossibility of getting paid leave days (so you’re either forced to go to work and expose yourself to the virus or stay home and lose your source of income), a market scare making companies consider laying off workers, and you have the perfect storm for an alarming relapse that can in some cases be fatal.
In this day and age of over (and often mis-)information, access to the facts is trickier than ever: while some media maintain their agenda of sensationalism with the bluntest disdain for collective well-being, millions of conspiracy theories pop in from all corners of the internet, fueled by a need for answers and a lack of trust in a system many feel has let them down in the past. So paranoia increases, contagious as the virus itself, and mild mass hysteria acts on the most vulnerable ones with a vengeance, often undoing the results years of therapy had managed to achieve.
There’s also the case of those dealing with some form of addiction like drugs or alcohol; after all, an addiction is always a form of escapism, an easy way out of a world that one refuses to deal with as it is. The self-destructive instinct, which psychoanalysis has always defended as being intrinsic to the individual, can be (re-)activated by an impending sense of helplessness, frustration with the surrounding circumstances, and overall impotence — which also constitutes a trigger for many cases of physical and psychological self-harm.
However, and having recently talked to a therapist with years of experience in treating all sorts of mental issues, I’ve learned that the opposite might also apply: apparently, some of her patients are (and surprisingly so) amongst the people she knows are best dealing with the whole situation psychologically. Her theory, she explained, is that those following some type of therapy are quicker to sort and utilise tools allowing them to cope, taking the necessary steps to avoid ruminating on intrusive thoughts altogether. When I spoke to her she was coming from a meeting with other psychologists from the centre she works at, and where they had discussed their collective strategy on how to approach the situation — they were all unanimous (and relieved) in revealing most of their patients were reacting better than expected.
But not all people have access to therapy, and some haven’t even arrived to the point of seeking professional help just yet. So what should be our collective attitude in order to try and minimise the psychological effects of a pandemic? Given the scarce resources many communities have in terms of access to healthcare in general and psychological support in particular, it’s important we check up on those close to us we know have dealt with some type of mental health issue in the past; sometimes paying attention to their overall behaviour and discourse should suffice, so do listen to them if they feel like they need to verbalise their fears and anxieties in order to stop them from taking over their head. If a friend who has trusted you with their issues in the past (and you know is currently undergoing psychological treatment) seems to be having an especially hard time, try to convince them to call their therapist for a quick chat — sometimes just knowing the safety net is there does wonders.
This being said, it’s important not to neglect those who have never dealt with such issues (at least apparently) either, because some people can be unexpectedly vulnerable to certain situations and not even aware of it until now — so they might not know how to deal with the overwhelming amount of anxious thoughts suddenly taking over them. Talk to your friends (over the phone or chat if you’re in lockdown or quarantine) but don’t dive too deep into questions without answers; resist blaming and panicking, and stay up-to-date with reliable sources of information regarding the measures being taken in your region. Take a break from the news every once in a while and have a lighter chat about a TV series, a film, a book, or that great new album you’d like to suggest — bonus points if you have some money to spare and can buy merch or a physical copy from the artist, who probably had part of their tour cancelled and is currently struggling financially. But most importantly, stay connected and look after each other; we’re getting out of this together, and if you believe there is a silver lining in everything, in this case it might just be an improvement of our sense of community, a bigger understanding that nobody is an island, and a chance of making a better society for everyone.