Countless articles about the negative mental health implications of lockdowns have been written since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they tend to have in common is an emphasis on the deleterious consequences of the isolation and uncertainty that so many people are experiencing right now, but very few of them seriously reflect on the fact that so many people’s mental health was in a fragile state even before the pandemic began.
It is almost like we don’t want to acknowledge that the combined consequences of fear since 9/11, chronic risk aversion, the conflict and negativity laden news cycle, and the superficial and unattainable idealisation of social media was chipping away at all of our mental health long before news reports of a deadly virus burst out of China.
Between books such as Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, we had ample sophisticated and integrated evidence that the twenty first century was not good for our mental health, and yet, notwithstanding all of this analysis, so many of us are desperate to get back to normal.
Aiming to get back to normal is not good enough. If all we do after the pandemic is go back to our previous way of living, people’s mental health will still be in a precarious state, just with one less obvious black cloud obscuring the corrosive forces that have been harming our well-being for decades.
We need to tell politicians that we don’t accept them using fear of the world to win us over to the ludicrous idea that they can make us safe from everything. Safety always comes at a price, and, as societies, we should have a robust discussion about how much freedom we are willing to surrender for supposed safety, as well as demanding that our political elite explain their risk assessments of the world they claim to be protecting us from.
We need to challenge the news media and ask them whether the consequences of consuming the endless negativity and conflict they put in front of us are worth the dollars they earn from scaring us into permanent low-level anxiety. If the news media can’t make money producing news that empowers society, then why are we letting them make money off of diminishing our sense of well-being?
It appears that millions of people can’t do a basic risk assessment, to tell the difference between the risks associated with a vaccine and a deadly disease. Our world is built on science, and yet so few people can use the scientific method to assess what risks are worthwhile and what risks are not worth taking. We already teach children so many things at school, so how about we teach them something that will be useful forever: how to assess data and how to reach conclusions about possible, or probable, outcomes of following a particular course of action.
At present, social media is not particularly social and makes a lot of money for media companies. Why don’t we reimagine social media in a way that is genuinely beneficial for our mental health, and that builds community more effectively than it builds fortunes.
Too many people endlessly talk and write about building resilience, but not enough people ask how and why we stopped being resilient in the first place?
I wish I had the answers that could help all of us become healthier and happier, but sadly I don’t. However, what I do know is that we need a deeper and wider debate about how we want to live that goes beyond getting back to normal.
Do you want the world to get back to normal, or do you want to help build something better than our old normal? Where do you think we should start, and what are you planning to do first?