‘I nearly had a fight in here yesterday’. The office boss was answering my question: ‘Are you noticing any effects on your staff from the pandemic?’ He went on to say that a colleague had quietly come into the room and inadvertently startled another colleague. The latter had erupted in fury, shouting at him and having to be restrained from hitting him. Yet the two normally got on well. ‘People are flying off the handle for little things that wouldn’t normally bother them much’, the boss added.
Anger and illness
This is happening all over the country. Increased anger (now including sharp divisions in society over the handling of Covid) plus anxiety and depression are recognized effects of the surreal situation we’re living in. People are exhausted from a long crisis with still no end in sight. As Alice Thomson wrote in The Times on 21st October 2020: ‘Everyone is stuck waiting. This endless indecision – the constant changing of rules, lack of structure and fear of the future – is debilitating.’ Add to that serious financial fears and it’s no wonder that the Duke of Cambridge has warned of ‘a mental health catastrophe’ in the UK. Thomson cites his words in the same article along with the results of a recent YouGov poll in which 43% of people said the pandemic was already having a negative impact on their mental health.
How’s it happening?
So how exactly is this thing having such an effect on us? Massive question and I have no comprehensive answer. But here are a couple of thoughts.
The attack on our humanity
Firstly, Covid is an attack on our very humanity. That’s the view of former Bishop of Guildford and of Chelmsford, John Gladwin. He says that we’re not built to operate without close human contact. A world without hugs, handshakes and physical proximity because those things could potentially kill us goes right against what we need and are as human beings. And when Covid prevents us from visiting frail or dying relatives that too is an atrocious assault on our humanity.
The foundation matrix
Secondly, and linked to that, our social bedrock – what unites us all and what we automatically assume offers permanent security – is being rocked. The man who developed group psychotherapy (group analysis) in the UK, Michael Foulkes, called this bedrock the ‘foundation matrix’. It embraced ‘the biological properties of the species’ (ie all the shared qualities of being human) and also ‘the culturally firmly embedded values and reactions’ (ie all the shared influences of society, culture, politics and religion that we carry within us).
The foundations are shaking
With Covid all these things have suffered a major shock so that the basic stabilizers of society are shaking. As I’ve said, physical contact is reduced. But also secure employment is suddenly questionable, destitution threatens some, clear national leadership is absent as is effective preventative medicine. Solitude is the order of the day for too many. Security to plan the future has gone and so has the freedom to do what you want to do and go where you want to go. Even things like contact with light and fresh air have been curtailed. The sense of time and the rhythms of life are affected. The natural sound of voices is restricted. And all of this impacts profoundly on our relationships.
In a piece called ‘Group analysis and culture’ psychiatrist Jaak le Roy warns that ‘disruptions of [the foundation matrix] can be highly pathogenic’ – in other words liable to make you ill. It seems that’s what’s happening now. Many of the the rock-solid certainties that underpin our world have begun to sway beneath our feet and it’s destabilizing us psychologically.
A social disruption on this colossal scale would usually be associated with war. And when you talk to people who lived through World War II they sometimes say that they recognize some of the things we’re seeing and experiencing today. But you also hear them say that the difference is that in those times ‘we had each other, now we don’t – not in the same way’.
While we’re waiting and hoping for an effective vaccine, we need to find as many safe ways of staying together and supporting and caring for one another as possible. And we need to understand something of what’s insidiously happening to us which in turn might lead us to have more patience with each other.
The next time someone makes you jump try not to punch them.
© Brian Shand 2020
More blogs: https://www.guildfordtherapy.co.uk/blog/