It’s totally wrong to turn Covid-19 into a ‘mental health crisis’
We shouldn’t pay too much attention to research that suggests the risk of mental health issues after Covid is higher than for other illnesses. This phenomenon has been created by the culture of fear surrounding the pandemic.
A new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry has found that almost 20 per cent of Covid survivors are suffering from psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression or insomnia within three months of testing positive for the virus.
The study suggests that the risk of suffering from mental illness after Covid is double that from other illnesses.
Like all studies surrounding Covid, this one, conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, provides far more questions than answers. Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, observed that more research was required to establish if indeed a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder could be directly linked to contracting coronavirus.
Speculating about the possible causes of such high levels of mental illness, Harrison asserted that “it’s not at all implausible that Covid-19 might have some direct effect on your brain and your mental health”. Some of the researchers raised the possibility that the high rate of mental illness among Covid survivors might be due to the drugs prescribed to treat their physical condition.
At present, what we have are educated guesses about the causes of a supposed epidemic of psychiatric disorder among survivors of Covid.
I am not surprised by the findings published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been constant warnings and speculation about its devastating consequences on mental health. Time and again, discussions around the impact of lockdown have implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – suggested that many people would not be able to cope. Alarmist predictions about an epidemic of mental health problems among children and young people has been a recurrent feature of media discussion since the early part of the year.
It almost seems as if a mental health crisis was waiting to happen. This point is clearly recognised in the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. It stated that “adverse mental health consequences of Covid-19, including anxiety and depression, have been widely predicted but not yet accurately measured”.
The reason why they have been widely predicted is because western culture has adopted an obsessive habit of perceiving mental illness as the normal affliction of human existence. As I argue in my book, Therapy Culture, western society is unwittingly cultivating people to feel powerless and anxious about their mental state.
In the current era, every distressing event serves as a medium for predicting a mental health crisis. Indeed, painful and difficult episodes that are a normal dimension of human existence are now reinterpreted as threats to mental health. Tensions at work, the pressure that children face during school exams or the experience of being rejected are now frequently re-interpreted as potential markers for mental health-related issues.
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was rebranded as a mental health problem that was likely to increase mortality by 26 percent. Since the pandemic, anxiety about the mental health consequences of loneliness have intensified.
The tendency to reinterpret the act of fearing, existential pain, disappointment and distress through the prism of mental health is best captured by the concept of medicalisation.
The term medicalisation draws attention to the trend towards interpreting the problems people encounter in their daily lives as medical ones. This means that human problems often come with a diagnosis. You are no longer shy, for example – you suffer from social phobia. Energetic boys who are deemed to be too active and don’t pay attention to their teacher are given the label Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A child’s temper tantrum is now described as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. Is it surprising that mental illness is always said to be on the increase?
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The sociologist Robert Merton elaborated the concept of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ to describe the way that initial assumptions and beliefs about a situation can play a significant role in establishing the meaning that those assumptions had for its outcome. The representation of existential problems as medical ones has an important influence on the way individuals perceive their health.
The representation of lockdown as an invitation for mental health problems may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It certainly enhances people’s fear and anxiety about the predicament they face. In such circumstances, it is not at all surprising that survivors of Covid remain intensely anxious about their health and that they will interpret their fears and difficulties through the language of psychology.
An enlightened society will recognise their pain and provide them with the support they require. But labelling their very normal and very understandable reaction as a form of mental illness does not do survivors any favours. It merely encourages people to perceive themselves as ill.
The medical crisis brought on by Covid is bad enough. Which is why we shouldn’t compound it by unwittingly creating a cultural climate that encourages us to perceive the difficulty we have in gaining control over our lives as a mental health problem.
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