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Can our mental health cope? Don't catastrophise: conquering things is what we humans do

March 26, 2020   4 mins

Have you recently been able to concentrate on what you’re doing? Have you recently felt constantly under strain? Have you recently been able to enjoy your normal everyday activities? Have you recently felt that you were playing a useful part in things?

More importantly do you know anyone who wouldn’t answer “Hell, no,” to every one of these questions right now? Except perhaps a medical professional or a shelf-stacker who’s absolutely playing a useful part in things, but probably hasn’t slept well in a fortnight.

The questions are from a standardised mental health screening tool called the GHQ 12. It’s used in surveys all across the world to get a sense of how many people are struggling with mental health problems at any one time. To qualify as having a “diagnosable mental health problem” you need to score 12 points or more.

Every “Hell, no” gets you three points. And if you didn’t score your full 12 with the questions I started with, don’t worry, you have eight more questions to complete. Eight more chances to qualify as struggling with your mental health.

In other words: yes, we are all a little bit crazy right now.

Of course, you might argue that this kind of mental distress doesn’t count as mental illness, or that it should be classified differently from conditions that occur spontaneously. Depression that creeps up on you for no reason and takes over your life is certainly different from what so many of us are experiencing: feeling shit because life is shit. And that’s especially true when we know that life is probably going to get back to normal-ish in a few months.

But we must not be complacent. It is true that mental health problems can come from ‘nowhere’, but it’s also true that they can be caused by poverty, trauma, pain and turmoil, and all too often are. What follows is a huge oversimplification of what little is understood about the reasons for the strong links between life experiences and mental health problems. But I hope it helps make sense of what’s going on.

When bad things happen to us, our thought patterns change. Run out of money and get into debt: you start to feel anxious. Stuck in an abusive relationship with someone who might hit you if you upset them: you become hyper cautious. Witness violence: you worry for your own safety. Lose a loved one: you shut down emotions that might overwhelm you.

These thought patterns become a “diagnosable mental health problem” when they affect your ability to live well. That might be because the problems don’t go away: debt doesn’t fix itself and abusive partners don’t turn into Prince Charming. But it might also be because you get stuck in those cycles of thinking even after the problems have gone away. The mental pain that started as a response became self-sustaining.

In normal circumstances most of us can bounce back from difficult experiences. But not everyone can, and not everyone does. And the longer our trauma lasts, or the sharper it is, the harder it is to get back to how we were before.

That means that there will be a huge and lasting impact on our collective mental health from what we live through over the coming months. We have to prepare ourselves for it.

Before you point out that we’ve lived through worse: I know, we have. Of course we have. We could list examples of collective trauma from human history for as long as this quarantine lasts, and we wouldn’t reach the end. But sanities were shattered by those experiences. For most of history, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder was the standard form of our existence. When most mothers lost children; when most men witnessed war: these were not times for human flourishing. Most of us will have a living or remembered relative who can barely speak about their life in war. We humans can survive almost anything. But the conditions for our thriving are utterly different. Those conditions are what is under threat.

Early studies from Italy confirm the truth of this. In a recent study of nearly 3,500 people, not one said they weren’t anxious. People with health problems and women in particular are riddled by anxiety. Middle-aged people — those with both parents and children to worry about — are reporting the highest levels of worry.

So how do we respond? Well, despite my personal despair at the impossible standards expected of us by the fitness guru Joe Wicks, keeping us all healthy and active in this lockdown time is going to be vital. Keeping us on top of our finances is probably next on the list — and if the “money saving expert” Martin Lewis isn’t offered a knighthood, a dukedom or the monarchy by the end of this, then our honours system needs a serious overhaul.

Everyone’s talking about home education, but it isn’t just the children who should be logging on. People who keep learning are the most likely to stay resilient in the face of mental health problems. Keep learning and you will keep well. So this really is the time to take up cooking, or the piano, or to grow your own vegetables — just expect yourself to be bad at the start, and never get further than mediocre.

But there’s one thing we mustn’t do, and that’s catastrophise. Donald Trump has started arguing against his own public health experts by saying that the shutdown should end soon, because a recession will “cause” suicides in the thousands. That is reckless, wrong, and downright dangerous.

Suicide rates do tend to rise during recessions. But that is not inevitable. Most importantly, public messaging about suicide will have a dramatic effect on the number of people who try to take their lives.

Every suicide is a tragedy. But it is also a rarity. Every year 5.4% of 16- to 74-year-olds have suicidal thoughts; 0.7% of us make an attempt to end our lives. And only 0.01% complete a suicide attempt. Another way of thinking about this is that the vast, vast majority of people survive suicidal thoughts.

If you’re feeling at the end of despair, and you hear your leader confirm that suicide is normal, it will do nothing to bring you back. It is the worst message to send. Suicide is not normal. Suicidal thoughts are survivable. Most people live through the worst of thoughts. Most people find purpose and meaning in life again. Or as the Sufi poets have it: this too shall pass.

We are all struggling right now. Struggling for purpose. Struggling for coherence. Struggling to understand. We have to acknowledge the difficulty if we are to have a hope of conquering it. But we must tell ourselves the truth, too, that conquering things is what we humans do. We have lived through worse. And we will live through this.

It is the act of saying this that makes it true.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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J Cor
J Cor
4 years ago

You know, one of the weirdest realizations that has hit me during all of this is that what is considered a “mental illness” in one context is adaptive in another. In times of ease and plenty, people who are constantly anxious and introverted to the point of being shut-ins are considered faulty, malfunctioning. We’re told to find therapists, take pills to make ourselves less anxious, and force ourselves to go outside and make friends. We’re told that those are the broken, bad parts of ourselves that need repair so that we can finally become proper human beings who act like proper human beings are meant to act.

But one pandemic shows up, and suddenly we’re the ones who are well-adapted, who can cope without losing our minds, who don’t sh*t ourselves all over social media posting crying selfies about how we’re going to go crazy if we have to stay inside for one more minute and wondering how we’ll pass the time, wondering how we’ll manage to cope with the constant 24/7 barrage of anxiety-producing news, freaking out over having to hold work meetings via teleconference applications.

If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s to accept and even treat with kindness and affection those parts of myself that have kept me at a constant, low-level state of anxiety for 54 years, and that have driven me to spend most of my weekends indoors reading or writing music by myself. Because now I’ve learned that those are only flaws when everything is going swimmingly. The minute something serious shows up, these are the most adaptive qualities any human being can have.

I’ve literally read thinkpieces about mental health where people have asked out loud why traits like anxiety and introversion even exist in a “social” species, as if people with these traits are genetic mistakes that slipped through the cracks.

We’re not mistakes, although we do slip through the cracks: the cracks created by pandemics like this one, the cracks that filter out everyone else.

In the future, if I live past this, let me tell you I’ll be a lot more understanding of my preference for remote work and meetings (which I’m absolutely loving right now, unlike many coworkers — I’ve never been so productive in my life). I’ll be much kinder toward my preferences for staying in on vacations and doing things by myself. I’ll even be much more patient with my constant anxieties because let me tell you, they keep my head clear as a bell when the sh*t really starts hitting the fan. I refuse to consider them flaws to be fixed anymore. Maybe they aren’t always adaptive, but they exist for a reason, and I’m glad I have them.

4 years ago
Reply to  J Cor

So well said. I have felt much the same throughout this and have also been learning those things society told us to “hate” about ourselves aren’t so bad at all. If only this will mean the introverts could now rule the world!

J Cor
J Cor
4 years ago
Reply to  drsjlburton

I saw a talk online once — this was decades ago, before YouTube, so I can’t find it now — by Jerri Nielsen, the doctor who was evacced from the South Pole in the 90s when she came down with cancer. In it, she talked about going to the Pole when the sun was up, and the most functional people there were the big, loud, outdoorsy Grizzly Adams types, and she saw a mousy quiet little woman in the corner who kept to herself and wondered, “Why is she here? This isn’t the place for someone like that.” Well, when the sun set and no one had seen daylight for four months, Nielsen said that that woman had the clearest mind in the room and had become crucial. She said that her experience at the South Pole taught her better than anything that diversity wasn’t just a political feel-good thing, and that it truly took all kinds to survive. “Survival of the fitter” is a group thing, not an individual thing, and we hermits and misanthropes have our place as well. I guess it’s the case when the sun disappears as well as when the plagues show up.

GOT IT!!!! It’s 27:04 into this video!!!


Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago

So 0.01/0.7=1.4 percent fatality rate per suicide attempt – higher than the IFR of Covid-19!
“0.7 percent of us” is higher than the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections in the UK.