We face a pandemic of mental health disorders. Those who do it hardest need our support | Paul Daley | Opinion
Yes, this is a frightening, deadly viral pandemic. But another plague, one we are not hearing nearly enough about from our leaders, will arrive in a wave just behind it.
That is the pandemic of severe depression and anxiety that will sweep over the world as the unemployment rate pushes into previously unseen digits, families who’d prefer to be socially distant are thrust together and young people are denied the certainty and structure of school.
I’m tempted to echo the wisdom of John Lennon and declare that love is the answer. Which, of course, it is. But I’ve seen enough of man’s capacity to hate man to know that love is going to be up against it in the dark months (I’m optimistic) of loathing and death ahead.
We are all trying to imagine where (hopefully) we will be in a month, let alone six months. The anxiety of that great unknown is almost paralysing in itself. But now as the reality of near-total societal shutdown bites, new layers of personal apprehension and uncertainty daily compound our anxieties.
School and work are critical elements of the scaffolding of our post-industrial societies. We define ourselves by what we do. One of the first questions adults ask new acquaintances (except, perhaps in Melbourne, where “Which school did you go to?” often comes first) is: “What do you do?”
For 20, 30, 40% – who knows? – of people, the answer will soon begin something like: “Well, I used to be …” That’s if they are able to make new acquaintances.
At its base, work is about survival. The personal structure, routine and self-esteem it affords us are almost as important as the food and shelter it also brings.
If you take all of that away from millions of people, the personal and societal implications are profound. Social isolation, even for those fortunate enough to keep their jobs in these times when reality sometimes feels too resonant of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, will bring particular anxieties.
But if you add unemployment and poverty to that isolation and denial of purpose and self-esteem – that ability to guarantee one’s survival – it follows that we now also face a pandemic of severe mental health disorders.
There is no more potent human instinct than that for survival. I fear how that will look just down this road a little way when guards man the doors of the supermarkets, when formerly gainfully employed people end up on the streets, when the security apparatus of the states enforce social distance and the list of the dead known to us grows.
Our children run the risk of being cut adrift in this. School, even if they sometimes don’t want to go, is their introduction to a structured world of friendship, learning and, yes, the means to survive.
“Social distancing” is the catchcry of this viral pandemic. Ironically, there has never been a time when we need to be – metaphorically – in tighter social embrace. As mass desperation, anxiety and depression elevate in line with the lengthening of the Centrelink queues, civil society will come to depend almost as much on the maintenance of individual mental health as on the availability of testing kits and masks.
We need to support – medically, financially, emotionally and psychiatrically – those who are going to do it hardest. Psychiatric support services will need to be dramatically bolstered to fight this other pandemic too.
I’ve never known a smile at a stranger a safe distance away on the street to go so far as it seems to these days.
Finding snippets of beauty where we can, and acting with kindness – and love – must be part of the answer in these most terrible of times.
The future of civil society depends on it.
• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the UK Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org