As a researcher of pop psychology fads, I’m often the target of amusingly misdirected Facebook adverts telling me ‘there’s no shame in seeking help’. However, since the outbreak of Covid-19 I’ve been noticing a strange twist. ‘Working from home? Anxious about the state of things? Talk to a therapist online and find relief’ goes an ad for BetterHelp, an online therapy service, beckoned from the margins of my social media newsfeed.
It seems they are not alone. Meditation company Headspace announced introductory offers for medical staff and meditations tailored to Covid-19 anxiety. Practitioners are offering webinars like, ‘Coping with Covid-19 with Mindfulness’ and guided meditations for frontline medical staff (a ‘suggested donation’ of just $30 for 15 minutes online).
Indeed, it has become difficult to ignore the degree to which the emotional response to the outbreak has been medicalised. Recent headlines warn of the ‘mental health toll of the coronavirus epidemic’, that ‘anxiety is on the rise’, and offer tips on ‘How to stay calm and protect your mental health during coronavirus’. Many call for increased mental health funding to deal with this hidden crisis. A Harvard University release entitled ‘Managing Fears and Anxiety around the Coronavirus’ offers a quasi-symptomatic listing of coronavirus ‘reactions’ including ‘anxiety, worry or panic’, ‘anger’, and ‘skepticism or bravado’. Chinese newspapers warn that while ‘moderate anxiety’ is ‘fine’, coronavirus news-consumption should be limited to ‘40% of all the information one receives’. Surely, an app for that is not far off.
Driving this is the assumption that the normal response to crisis is to be emotionally and mentally unwell. Many articles claim it is ‘normal’ to feel fear and anxiety. The US National Alliance on Mental Illness explained that it is ‘okay to feel sad, angry, or scared’, offering a list of helplines. It is normal to be unwell. Good citizens should seek professional interventions. But how we respond to a situation depends on the meaning we give to it. While we are increasingly offered the language of mental health, crises can also give meaning to our actions and foster a sense of common purpose and unity.
Excessive focus on individual mental health risks pathologizing everyday life and instrumentalising our responses. Staying in touch becomes less about connecting with our family and friends than an act of #selfcare. Seeing the response to the pandemic in mental health terms also has the effect of turning it into a professional problem for which we should seek similarly professional help. What people need, and what we need now, is to step up as a community and find collective solutions. That’s not something you can pay for over the phone.