TW: suicide, self-harm, racism, police killings, transphobia, involuntary hospitalisation
A couple of months ago I wrote a post about a flurry of (bad) newspaper articles on OCD and COVID-19, and as I wrote it, I wondered – how long is this new-found enthusiasm for mental health topics going to last? Cynic that I am, I suspected a panic-fuelled rush into mental health awareness by people and publications who have not previously given much space to the topic was unlikely to go well, or add up to much.
Because a lot of this really was a headlong rush into complicated and difficult topics by people who had not given this enough thought. Remember that journalist who wanted to interview people who thought the then-new recommendations on handwashing were giving them OCD? Skimming the Wikipedia page would tell you that’s a bad take.
And that approach was pretty typical. Sure, there were pieces on how the pandemic would affect people who were already living with a mental health condition. But many of these were not good.
And there was a lot – I mean a lot – of attention on people experiencing new mental health issues, and articles that emphasized the novelty of the present situation.
Now is the time, we were told, to focus on mental health.
Certainly there were people dealing with new mental health issues because of the pandemic, and those people deserve help and empathy.
But the choice to focus on that group erases the fact that some of us were here already.
It also divides the world into two: the Normal People, who are Just Stressed About the Virus; and the Not Normal People, and our troublesome, dysfunctional brains. And it shines the spotlight – as is so often the case – on the concerns and problems of the Normal People.
For that matter, when those newspaper articles discussed the new mental health problems of the Normal People, they were almost always discussing a certain group of conditions, most commonly of all anxiety and OCD. Why?
Literally we are only bringing up OCD because it is associated with hand washing and the WHO told us to wash our hands.
Anxiety, maybe, makes more sense. People currently do feel anxious.
But really, there is no reason to assume that the stress of the pandemic would lead to a spike in particular conditions. Stress affects people variously.
So where are the think-pieces on COVID-19 stress potentially triggering bipolar or schizophrenia?
Is there really a good reason pandemic stress would definitively not trigger a bipolar or schizophrenic episode? Did we just forget about those disorders? Or are they being excluded from the mental health discussions around the pandemic because they are the Scary Disorders?
Symptoms of distress have also been covered unevenly.
There has been some discussion of suicide, fuelled by suggestions that there might be a spike in deaths by suicide due to the pandemic.
Yet in the wave of newspaper articles on mental health and the pandemic, there has been almost no discussion of the symptom of self-harm, despite how common a symptom of distress that is.
Never mind, maybe another fifteen articles on the relaxing properties of scented candles and the mental health benefits of exercise will sort us all out.
Or perhaps not, because – good news! – it’s all fine anyway. The New York Times has bravely reported that rates of serious mental health issues are not likely to go up because of the pandemic. Hurray?
Usually, I would be on board to celebrate the fact that rates of a kind of illness are steadying, even if not actually declining. But the world in general has a bad habit of disregarding, diminishing, and demonising mental illnesses. That article feels less like “it’s great there won’t be more of this specific kind of pain” and more like “thank god we won’t all be turning into those weirdos.”
And in any case, the suggestion that rates of serious mental illness will not go up because of the pandemic does not mean things are fine.
The pandemic is only one part of the world right now, even as some days it feels like it is the only thing happening. Black people continued to be killed by police, including Black disabled people. Trans people continue to have their very right to exist called into question. Discrimination, harassment, assault, and murder of members of minoritized groups seriously harms the mental health of members of those communities.
And as we talk about mental health, we should also talk about problems in psychology, psychiatry, and mental health services, like that time a guy got involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility for calling out his employers for racism.
There have been mental health problems, there are mental health problems, there will continue to be mental health problems in future. We need to be talking about them – all of them – as well as their causes and the problems inherent in their treatment.
Did we only care about mental health when we thought it would affect the Normal People? Now that – maybe – most people might be mostly ok, is it still mental health o’clock? Or did we go back to not caring?
Because, really, if you only cared about mental health when you thought it might affect the Normal People, you never really cared at all.