Transforming the Covid-19 pandemic into a mental health problem has created opportunities for a variety of therapeutic ‘experts’ and psychopharmaceutical companies to exploit anxiety and uncertainty.
The UK is a few days into a ‘lockdown’ on people leaving their houses to control the spread of Covid-19 along with many countries around the world. Boredom, uncertainty, working from home with children in tow and lack of social contact is likely to make many of us miserable. However, it has become difficult to ignore the way that the pandemic has been transformed into a mental health problem. A release from Harvard University described responses to Covid-19 in almost medical terms, listing likely ‘reactions’ such as “anxiety, worry or panic,” “anger” and “skepticism or bravado”.
Indeed, the mental health fallout of the pandemic has been construed as equally troubling as the virus itself. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have called coronavirus a “mental health crisis.” First lady of New York City Chirlane McCray and psychiatrist Kenneth Paul Rosenberg have said, “Just as we are moving rapidly to safeguard our physical health, we must act with equal urgency to preserve our mental health and make psychiatric care accessible.”
No doubt those with existing conditions will find what is effectively ‘house arrest’ difficult to cope with. However, the likelihood of becoming mentally unwell has been construed as a ‘normal’ response likely to be felt by the majority of the population. Yet this anxiety and distress is still seen in largely pathological terms. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard expressed ‘understanding’ that many in Australia would be feeling “uncertainty and concern” in relation to the coronavirus, directing people to a range of mental health supports. In response to the crisis, it is normal to be ill and in need of treatment.
If our responses to the pandemic are psychiatric symptoms, then it is little surprising that the answers aren’t to be found in keeping in touch with friends and family or getting creative with our time, but accessing a range of pharmaceutical treatments and therapeutic supports. The psychotherapeutic industry has been creatively refashioning its wares to cater to this new frame for making sense of the issue. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) announced a significant increase in members advertising online and telephone counselling services. Mindfulness practitioners are offering training seminars on ‘coping with Covid-19’ and guided meditations for frontline medical staff. Meditation apps have developed a range of introductory offers geared to the ‘stress of Covid-19’. Even hypnotherapists are getting in on the action.
Pharmaceutical companies may be busily searching for a cure or vaccine, but a range of ‘treatments’ for the collective malaise of lockdown are ready and waiting. If feeling bad in a bad situation is both to be expected and a health problem, patients, people in isolation and an anxious and uncertain population present a potential market for existing treatments and supports. Research on the handling of crises in China in the past has shown that there is a tendency to exploit them to bolster booming therapeutic and psychopharmaceutical industries worth billions per year.
While most of the increase in the use of psychotropic medications comes from long-term use, the US has moved to relax restrictions on psychiatrists to allow them to draw up prescriptions without needing to see patients face to face. While many new prescriptions will undoubtedly be necessary, it is questionable that claims about increases in anxiety on the part of the general population should be seen as issues requiring ‘treatment’. This is particularly true given the considerable difficulties of ending the use of such medications in the long term as well as considerable side effects.
Covid-19 is an unprecedented health emergency on its own without turning it into a psychological crisis. A pandemic is likely to produce anxiety and uncertainty. But the notion that these constitute ‘mental health problems’ has allowed a variety of psychotherapeutic entrepreneurs to exploit our uncertainties.
By Ashley Frawley