New research into the mental-health toll of the pandemic suggests a divergent effect depending on social status and income. A small minority (8.5% in the study) report improved mental well-being. A larger minority (28.5%) report worsening mental health. The worst off suffer the most.
Richard Bentall and his co-workers report: “the economic threats associated with the pandemic were most linked with [mental illness] symptoms, whereas exposure to the virus seemed to have little effect”. They warn, though, that very few of the people they studied had Covid so badly as to be hospitalised, and the picture may be different for the hospitalised.
Some parts of the study show some overall improvement in mental health from early lockdown to late 2020. The researchers suggest that “strong social bonds protect people against stress and, during a crisis [of collective trauma], people often come together to help each other, creating a sense of belonging and a shared identity with neighbours”, in contrast to individual traumas which isolate.
Possibly fewer social encounters in the pandemic have brought less status anxiety. The pandemic has also afforded some better-off people, including better-off workers, more time for self-care. The $4.5 trillion global “wellness” industry is enjoying a boom as locked-down populations use apps and digital technology to build their self-care routines. Whether that genuinely improves people’s well-being is a much larger debate, but it may lead to more self-reporting of improved mental health.
The scant epidemiological research into the world’s mental health crisis finds a correlation between psychological distress and social inequality. More unequal societies produce more troubled minds.
Those who have carried the greatest burdens during lockdown are also probably experiencing the highest mental distress: key workers, parents, and the poorer sections of society. It is worst for those with little to look forward to when life gets “back to normal”.
Pre-pandemic “normality” was a stressful world where one person in four was suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, psychosis or addiction. It was a world where human potential was squandered, where status, wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of a few, a civilisation that was destroying its own ecological foundations and storing up catastrophe for the young and yet to be born.
Unless the increased status that low paid keyworkers enjoyed during the initial lockdown translates into militant workers’ organisations and a rebirth of working-class power, the pandemic of mental illness is likely to expand rather than decline with moves back to capitalist normality.