It’s peculiar to think we could be watching the neuroses of a generation developing in real time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the religious hand-washing sticks, of course. But the other, suddenly normal new behaviours – the hoarding of disinfectants, the wide berth we give each other on the streets, the unfamiliar anxiety crowds of people now provoke – could be the lingering psychosocial effects of a global emergency that has upended our lives so abruptly and completely.
Children of the Great Depression still cringe at food waste. Now, we might keep bottles of Lysol in our storage closets in a perpetual state of “just in case.”
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an urgent threat to both the physical welfare of individuals and the collective economic health of our communities. But there’s also a looming mental-health crisis just waiting to erupt, poised to compound what is already a massively volatile global situation. A few new neuroses in the long term might be the best-case scenario. Depending on how long we’re forced to exist in this suspended state, it could get a whole lot worse.
There are acute mental-health issues: addicts in recovery without access to physical meetings; economic anxiety from job losses, financial instability and business closures; depression fuelled by physical seclusion; feelings of isolation, loneliness, panic and fear. Issues like child abuse and intimate-partner violence are often exacerbated by isolation, which is something we’re now supposed to embrace for the foreseeable future for the sake of our physical health.
For those who suffer with anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and panic disorder, the virus has weirdly validated many of the fears they’ve long worked to counter as irrational. Imagine years of therapy to train your brain out of the thought that something bad will happen if you don’t wash your hands seven times, only to be suddenly bombarded with messages about the critical importance of washing your hands. Then add on the realization that you can’t find hand sanitizer anywhere.
We can adapt to the physical changes rather well in the short term. Funds are being mobilized to help those in economic crisis. Equipment production, testing and research are being expedited to cope with the acute health-care concerns. But it’s hard to predict, never mind brace for, the emotional toll this sudden extraordinary change in circumstance will have on all of our lives.
What will be the lasting psychological effects of, for example, asking women’s partners to leave the hospital within two hours of their baby being born, which some Canadian hospitals are now requesting? (Some hospitals in New York, in fact, are barring partners altogether, which means women will have to endure labour and birth with the support of hospital staff only.) How does one erase the trauma of watching his or her retirement plans implode in a matter of hours? How will we cope with not being able to visit sick family and friends in hospital?
There is plenty of research that connects periods of economic peril to a rise in mental-health disorders. Ditto for global pandemics, such as the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-10, for which the Disaster Mental Health Subcommittee of the National Biodefense Science Board in the U.S. recommended an integrated physical- and mental-health approach to response efforts. The COVID-19 crisis, however, is a health and economic emergency in one, with all the components of a mental-health tsunami.
Some governments and organizations have taken steps to try to mitigate the mental-health impact of these sudden changes. Kids Help Phone has seen hundreds of new volunteers and is taking in thousands in new donations. The Psychologists’ Association of Alberta is offering free counselling sessions to the province’s COVID-19 first responders. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a special press conference just for children to try to answer their questions and alleviate their concerns. These measures are practical and necessary, and yet their impact won’t rival the effect the current crisis will have on our collective psyches. This thing is just too big.
If there’s a silver lining to all of this, however, it’s that many young children (and dogs) appear to be having the best time of their lives right now: surrounded at home, all the time, by some of their favourite people, with barely a concern beyond lunchtime. Many of them, if we’re lucky, might even look back fondly. The rest of us, years from now, might be reliving our trauma as we add an eighth pack of disinfectant wipes to our storage-closet collection.
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