Kate Byng-Hall talks about the struggle against worsening mental health in modern society, especially in the wake of coronavirus.
Photo by Milada Vigerova
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the world is experiencing another pandemic – that of anxiety and depression. The conditions are becoming commonplace in modern society, and have only been worsened by the effects of coronavirus.
Both anxiety and depression are mental health conditions caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Depression entails feeling down or hopeless as well as loss of interest in most things, along with possible symptoms including disturbed sleep, disrupted appetite, loss of energy, slowness of movement or agitation, poor concentration, and feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Meanwhile, anxiety is characterised by intense and excessive worry, and can also cause shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, twinges, difficulty concentrating, poor sleep, and ultimately panic attacks.
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The similarities between the two conditions means that 45% of people with one of the two disorders end up also showing symptoms of the other. The combination of the two creates a constant feeling of tension and numbness which is impossible to shake, and encroaches on all aspects of life with no end in sight. The prevalence of this only seems to be increasing.
A recent survey published in The Lancet Psychiatry has revealed that the mental health of the UK’s population as a whole has decreased markedly since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The study asked 17,500 people to complete a 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) which assesses individuals’ mental wellbeing and feelings towards themselves. Comparisons between results before and during Covid revealed that mean scores increased from 11.5 in 2018-2019 to 12.6 in April 2020 – the higher the score, the poorer the mental health.
The worst-affected group scores-wise was 18-24-year-olds, where the average score-increase was 2.69. There has also been a significant rise in prevalence of clinically significant levels of mental distress, from 18.9% in 2018-2019 to 27.3% in April 2020.
“The problems for mental health from COVID-19 and governmental responses to the pandemic are not necessarily new; instead, pre-existing mental health inequalities could become more entrenched and tackling them might be even more challenging.” – Matthias Pierce, Centre for Women’s Mental Health at the University of Manchester
Another recent British Medical Association survey found that 41% of doctors were suffering with depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress or another mental health condition relating to aggravated by their work, with 29% saying this had worsened during the pandemic.
A Systemic Disease
The spread of these ailments hasn’t begun with the pandemic – it’s been going on for years. It’s widely believed, and I think true, that today’s society breeds self-criticism and self-isolation, making becoming anxious or depressed much more likely.
Nowadays, we’re encouraged, and indeed almost forced, to live a monotonous and robotic life of work and occasional rest in order to keep up with the competitive atmosphere and need for professional success in order to gain worth as a human being.
There are a strict set of standards expected of us to live up to society’s ideals: working enough but not too much that you look boring; socialising enough but not too much that you look like an attention-seeker; eating enough but not so much that you get fat; buying enough but not too much that you seem greedy.
There’s also an overwhelming pressure to be happy, or at least appear that way in our social-media-saturated world. Even if you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re obliged to post a smiling selfie, cocktail-in-hand, on Instagram, or you’ve somehow failed at life. This is made worse by the quick-fix culture which teaches that if you suppress your struggles, they’ll go away, or you can at least appear outwardly thriving even if you’re crumbling inside.
“Depression, and anxiety for that matter, are the most likely outcomes of living in and with the unmerciful and misguided constraints of a tired and destructive worldview. Our constructed reality is, for many people, depressive and anxiety-inducing.” – Mel Schwartz L.C.S.W., psychotherapist
This culture, admittedly assisted by the increased awareness and thus diagnosis of mental illness in the first place, has led to 1 in 4 people in England experiencing some form of mental health issue every year. 1 in 6 experience a common problem (like anxiety or depression) every week, with 8 out of every 100 people in the country experiencing a mix of anxiety & depression weekly.
The members of society most likely to experience mental health problems are the LGBTQ+ community, black people, women aged 16-24, the homeless, those in contact with criminal justice system, military veterans, and victims of trauma/abuse. Essentially, those typically most vulnerable become the most susceptible to mental illness rather than being the most looked-after.
So perhaps, the spike in mental health concerns in the past few months, while having an unprecedented cause, have exposed how damaging our society’s priorities can be for our minds, and may help us rethink how we should be treating ourselves as well as others.
If you or someone you know is affected by the issues discussed in this article, call 999 for urgent assistance, contact the Samaritans by calling 166 123, or visit the MIND charity website.
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