Responses to the pandemic: equality or insanity?

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2020 - 10:24 Author: Stuart Jordan
Mental health graphic

Agitation for increased funding for mental health services continues, with various research papers highlighting or predicting high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mental health services are in desperate need of resources.

It remains unclear whether this coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions, specifically, really have made a difference to the mental illness pandemic that was already blighting the lives of billions globally long before Covid-19 came into being.

For instance, a survey from UCL headlined that 18% of respondents had thoughts of self-harm or suicide during lockdown and a further 5% had self-harmed. Those figures are shockingly high but sadly nothing new. The 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey for England and Wales found slightly higher rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Some studies even suggest improved wellbeing during the pandemic. A study of 1000 year 9 students found 45% of girls and 18% of boys feeling anxious during lockdown compared to 54% of girls and 24% of boys the previous October.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has analysed data from Public Health England suggesting the number of high-risk drinkers has nearly doubled during lockdown to 19% of the adult population compared to 10.8% in February.

However, total alcohol consumption in the UK dropped dramatically during lockdown. 1.3 billion litres were drunk compared with 2 billion litres during the same period last year. According to an Opinium survey 7% of drinkers stopped entirely and over one third took steps to reduce their drinking.

NHS Digital data shows that even the high-risk lockdown drinking was low compared to some years back: the proportion of men and women usually drinking at increased or higher risk of harm has been steadily decreasing for years. In 2011, 34% of men and from 18% of women were in the high-risk category.

Probably, the pandemic and lockdown has meant that some are struggling more and some struggling less, with few people's mental well-being remaining entirely unaffected. We will not know the long-term effects on mental well-being for some time. We do know that mental illness reached pandemic proportions long before the coronavirus disrupted our lives.

New figures from the ONS show more suicides in 2019 than at any point in the last two decades. Statistics from the US show the worst suicide rate since 1941 — a time before modern psychiatric medicine!

The biggest ever study of anxiety, analysing 6.6 million GP records over 20 years found an "explosion" of anxiety disorders between 2008-2018. During that time anxiety among 18-24 year olds trebled. A further large scale study has found poorer young people are much more likely to suffer mental illness than their richer counterparts.

All of these studies are further confirmation of the groundbreaking work of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, who have shown that mental illness increases as inequality increases and hits the poorest hardest.

Whatever hardships and pain the pandemic has brought, it has to a limited extent disrupted a social system that was making us mentally unwell and provided some space for a reappraisal. To some extent it has revealed aspects of our social reality that were previously obscured.

It has revealed what work and workers are essential and who is not, and how poorly that essential work is valued and renumerated. It has revealed our common interdependence and common humanity across borders. It has revealed a world blighted by gross inequality and injustice, a complex system of racial and gender based oppression propping up one deep world-spanning class divide.

The crisis has been an abrupt and stressful shock to many people, in part because it has shattered some of the complacent illusions by which the miserable capitalist system sustains itself. That shock will lead some into depression, paranoia, and the insane politics of conspiracy theory and millenarian cults.

For others it may lead to a fight for a less maddening and more equal socialist world. Therein lies the hope for a cure to the mental illness pandemic.

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