As the world ventures toward immunity and normalcy or a reasonable facsimile thereof, we are frequently hit with statistical milestones. Numbers of cases, doses, Covid deaths, outbreaks and vaccines scroll across our TVs and computer screens. From this we are to brace for prolonged restrictions or entertain hopes of a return to social interaction.
There is much political finger pointing in ever country in an attempt to score points. We hear that incumbent politicians and parties have dropped the ball, endangering lives which can only be saved by voting in the opposition candidate. Public Health authorities implore us to stay home and avoid non-essential social contact.
What isn’t being tabulated publicly is the cumulative effect on our mental health. As surely as there were those in our families, communities and workplaces who struggled in normal times, we don’t need a degree in psychiatry to know that our most vulnerable have escalated mental health risk in this pandemic.
Little by little, case by case, sector by sector, country by country, stories are coming forth about those for whom the isolation became too much to go on living. It is most distressing to hear of children and teens exhibiting signs of serious mental illness and capacity for self harm. Much healthy child development hinges on social connections and the current cohort of school aged kids is being deprived.
The heart wrenching story of Hayden Hunstable in Aledo, Texas serves as a stark reminder. In distress at being unable to connect with his friends online after his computer monitor failed, twelve year old Hayden took his own life. He was found by his sister and father who were unable to revive him.
The Cruise ship industry employs young adults charged with the task of providing cheerful journeys for vacationers. As Covid 19 hit, cruise ships with infected passengers and crew were left unable to dock, in some cases waiting weeks for clearance before allowing passengers to disembark. As this unfolded, cruise line workers were effectively becalmed at sea.
Cruise workers were confined to their living quarters for social distancing purposes while waiting to reunite with families. The repatriation process experienced delay after delay. For some, the wait and uncertainty over their health and isolation were too much to bear. Several cruise worker lives ended in acts of self harm. These were largely young workers from all corners of the globe in the prime of their lives.
The UK and Japan have created government positions entitled “Minister of Loneliness”. Leading nations now see social isolation as a major public health hazard. Japan’s suicide rate increased seventy per cent in 2020. Suicide was already at crisis levels in Japan before the pandemic and was the leading cause of death in men aged 20–44 and women aged 15 to 34.
It is not for me as a medically untrained citizen to question the decisions of public health authorities. I believe nation states are flying by the seat of their pants and that there really is no road map for managing a pandemic. Piling on with criticism won’t be constructive. The resulting mental illness from social isolation, however, does not require a vaccine.
We rarely know if someone is at risk of self harm until it’s too late. While there has been great progress in removing the stigma around mental health, Covid 19 has us all mentally and emotionally akilter. Those who were already vulnerable going into the pandemic have had their suffering intensified.
But the longer the social restrictions go on, the longer we are without the social proof we get from our daily interactions that validate our self worth. These cumulative confidences, habits and victories have not been formed yet in our children. For our most vulnerable adults, they may never have formed properly.
There’s a reason prisons use solitary confinement as punishment. It imposes harsh emotional and psychological penalties and eventually leads to serious mental illness. There is not one of us who is not experiencing something along this continuum now.
We have yet to feel the full economic effects of Covid 19. A wave of job losses and bankruptcies could exacerbate our already fragile well being. If the pandemic continues and lockdowns are re-imposed, the mental health risk will eventually outweigh the risk of Covid 19 for much of the population. I hope our leaders and public health authorities factor this into their decision making.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please contact local emergency services, a mental health professional in your area or use these resources to get help: