If you listen carefully right now you’ll hear something that’s actually been getting louder in past couple of weeks. It is certainly easier to hear it with all this social distancing reducing traffic and background noise, but it’s unmistakable and picking up steam. It’s the drumbeat of a deluge of hot takes telling us that Coronavirus will be not only a physical health disaster, but in fact that worse is to come. The mental health consequences will in fact be even further reaching and will leave thousands upon thousands in dire need of support and treatment moving forward when we’re eventually allowed to emerge back into the wider world.
Certainly, this pandemic is going to leave a tsunami of distress, despair, trauma, distress arising from having to shelter with abusers and manipulators, unemployment and on and on and on. The aftermath emotionally is very likely to be for many people, a seemingly unremitting shitshow. So all these takes about a coming mental health crisis seem on point then right? Maybe, but only if we actually think about what we mean by mental health in this sense anyway, and how in hell we respond to the altered world we’re going to step back into. In western culture the mainstream view of mental distress and anguish has always been the language of illness and disorder. Mental health in fact has become synonymous with disorder to such a degree that when the average Joe talks about ‘mental health’ what they’re often talking about is the negative end of the mental health spectrum and things that are ‘wrong’ or disordered, rather than viewing mental health in a much more broader and honest context. Mental health is something to be dealt with in quiet voices with prescription, isolation and six sessions of CBT. In the tired old cliche, it’s just like a physical injury, the broken brain is just like the broken leg(!), and should be viewed through that lens of repair and getting ‘back to normal’. The fact that we’re seeing people refer to this oncoming mental health storm as an epidemic, shows just how deeply ingrained the medical model of mental distress is.
It’s curious to watch all this happening as someone with a mental health diagnosis. I myself reject the medicalisation of my experiences and responses to them, I see my depression not as a mental illness or a mental health issue, but as a response based on things that I’ve lived through and experienced. To me, ‘mental health’, is one of the consequences of life. And I’m not invoking any kind of just-world theory here, this is not any kind of a moral issue, but it is a fundamental life experience. I am not saying that mental crisis isn’t dangerous to your health (I know this from bitter experience) and I’m not saying that it’s not to be taken seriously. I am saying that I see the immediate medicalising response as a cop-out and missed opportunity.
When the lockdowns are easing, I fear a world that will squander precious time and energy that could be acting upon our collective trauma, but instead looks to reinstate the old normal. A world that doesn’t hear survivors’ stories, and instead designates a certain amount of people who cannot adjust, as having ‘Coronavirus Stress Response Disorder’ (to be neatly shortened to CSRD). These people will then be implicitly looked down upon as not having the mental fortitude to ‘keep calm and carry on’, and in the UK it’ll be another way to uphold the myth of ‘blitz spirit’ and other jingoistic bullshit. Charities and voluntary groups will set up CSRD support groups for weekly meetings in quiet corners and details will be given furtively and with a sense of shame. Certain groups such as ethnic minorities and the disabled will be deemed to be at particular risk (without anyone looking into the why), there’ll doubtless be a national awareness day, and a few years down the line, celebrity tell-alls and ‘coming outs’ about their lived experiences of CSRD. And in the name of trying to return to an impossible normal an opportunity will be missed.
So what is that missed opportunity?
It’s a chance to engage with someone’s pain, distress and anguish. To hear someone’s story and experience. To ask them what tools and support they need and trust to their expertise in themselves, rather than immediately seeing them as disordered. To look at the wider issues surround mental health. Not to box it off, but to think of it relating to employment, housing, our political realities, world trauma, grief, death, bereavement and so much else. We have to look at mental health in the context of our lives, rather than as something which is damaging or dangerous. We must stop tying distress to illness or wrongness. We must not make mental distress apolitical. Yes as the adage says mental illness does not discriminate, but to say that it discriminates equally is nonsense. Age, race, disability, gender, sexuality, class – all of these things have an impact on us, and any mental health professionals that refuse to acknowledge this are doing a disservice to themselves and their clients. In short, we must learn to see this not so much as a medical issue, but as a social one.
We must not let the old narrative of disorder to settle back into it’s former comfort, and it will be interesting to see how many people react in the aftermath. I suspect that many people will experience emotions (symptoms?) and feel things that in the past would have been quietly hushed and fed prozac and mindfulness. I hope that this horrific global trauma gives us a new way to look at how we think about emotional responses, about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I hope that many people upon finding their normal responses and feelings labelled, will push back. I hope people will reflect about how maybe those with lived experience had skills to share, rather than problems to be resolved. Our current model of mental health was fraying at the edges before COVID-19, this pandemic is going to show that the way we’ve sought to disorder people, is not, and never was fit for purpose.