I think I have written this beginning at least three times since the beginning of January 2021. This new year, as many of us try to affect a cognitive and existential distance from such a horrible last one, was supposed to be a new beginning, a new start, the first steps along the road towards the exit of this pandemic. Yet, here we are in the United Kingdom, under a third national lockdown, prompted by rising infection rates influenced by the mutation of this Covid-19 virus so it has become more infectious, more dangerous to us all.
Looking back, during the first wave of this pandemic, when the lockdowns were first instituted, many considered the experience of being inside to be just like that of being on a spiritual or meditation retreat; that one has a bit of time to turn inwards, one eats perhaps more healthily than one did before for a short time, one watched ones dreams, meditated, prayed and did other psychologically affirming things, all in preparation for coming out the other end a more complete person. The newness of that lockdown, and the spring which rolled in to summer, meant that there was a cheerfulness attached to it; we applauded the NHS on the doorsteps, we baked banana bread, we zoomed and WhatApp-ed with our friends and colleagues and thought nothing of it because we all assumed we were going to be free by the summer. What it also hinted loudly at though was our shadow side. Lockdown brought out the anxious and selfish need to horde goods from our fellow humans (toilet roll anyone?), and it raised the spectre of our instinctual reversion to gendered roles in the home and an increase in domestic violence (Dib et al., 2020). Ultimately for all the kindness of some it has even brought with it an unprocessed harshness in others and in how we relate to each other.
Then the autumn happened. Rates started to rise after we were all lulled to Eat Out To Help Out, that national drive to respread this virus all around the place like thick British butter on an even larger and thicker British sized piece of bread. And as we edged towards autumn we were forced into a second national lockdown, with the nights drawing in, the cold winds blowing in from the north, and the rain keeping all indoors that bit longer. This time the true reality of lockdowns hit for many, their subsequent length, depth and seemingly unending nature bringing with them a sense of anxiety, depression and occasional suicidality, experiences often only hinted at during those first couple of heady months.
This more realistically realised impact of these increasing lockdowns should not be underestimated. In Greece, just this month, there have been reports of the increased levels of mental health distress, culminating in rising suicide rates because of these lockdowns (Fountoulakis et al., 2021). More specifically, the Daily Telegraph (Unknown, 2020) recently reported the that impact upon the BAME of entering numerous lockdowns had led to increased levels of depression, broken sleep and addictive behaviours as just some of the consequences out of many.
In doing research for this blog, my intuition led me to consider lockdowns in connection to the prison system. Prisons by their very nature are designed to assist, or to force, a convict to reflect upon their actions and repent upon ways deemed unfit by said society. Lockdowns therefore have the same psychological impact should the individual wish that. Although obviously anecdotal, many of my friends and colleagues have reflected to me upon their lives pre-lockdown as now not fit for purpose and are actively considering the ways they could change things post-lockdown (spending more time with family for example). But like anyone who has become institutionalised to the world pre-Covid-19 there will be those who will resist this change. Like a psychological defence, they will act out more, use their addictions more, fight against the change more, and struggle to recognise that the world they were borne into has changed beyond recognition in a matter of a couple of years.
Taking this a stage further, we could view lockdowns through the lens of a Supermax, a prison system whereby people are kept confined for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, that one hour of exercise being the only time to see the sky, to feel the wind on one’s face, to meet or see other people. Yet, Supermax prisons come with their own mental health difficulties, problems which are unsurprisingly similar to those being reported already across Europe. As Haney (2003) reported upon how supermax prisons where people are locked away for the vast majority of the day on their own have inbuilt mental health problems as well, again with rising levels of suicidality, and self-harm.
Now this blog is not do denigrate lockdowns, as I am as happy as I can be at lockdowns and all of the measures implemented to contain the spread of the virus (whilst I am also not a fan of anti-maskers, anti-lockdown protests, or any general denier of the toll this pandemic has taken upon us all). Where I have a huge concern is in the upswing in psychological distress brought on not just by the existential crisis embedded with the arrival of Covid-19, but also hidden within the torturous way lockdown has been implemented.
Lockdowns by their very nature bring with them an unnatural enforced means of living. Yes, they are a tool yes designed to keep us safe, but they hold within them major flaws in their rapid creation and inception, flaws which will do nothing less, in my view, than invite the horsemen of the mental health apocalypse riding over the horizon whenever we exit this hell on earth. There is a darkness which has arisen in many during this period, myself included, a shadowy side of our own personalities which has had to come to the surface during this period. Lockdowns, as well as the existential crisis of Covid-19, means that many of us psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists are busier than ever before working with the psychological distress brought on by the sudden stop lockdowns have prompted, and the wider world needs to be aware of this.
As a final personal perspective, a brief story about us, or myself as a practitioner. Late one recent evening down here on the coast I found myself so full up and angry at the state of things that I eventually felt an overwhelming need to just stand up in the driving rain and bellow at the waves as they rolled back and forth before me, feeling a real deep-seated need to express my frustration and anger at the current psychological state of the lockdown world, to release the horsemen War within. I needed this release as even I have found it challenging to be alone at home day after day, maybe with my child, maybe not, sat on a sofa or at my dinner table to work, maybe venturing outside to the shops, yet more often than not I don’t. Sometimes, even I find that this time can weigh heavily upon my head like a crown of bricks fashioned together with mortar. Yet, whilst my call to King Canute was my own means of expressing this rage, it is essential that we all find our individual means of surviving what is coming during these painful winter months ahead.
For example, I know though that I am lucky that for me it is a short drive out in to the countryside, or a short walk to go and sit by the sea, echoing Pouso et al (2020) who discussed the importance of being able to access outside spaces during this lockdown. Yet, whilst I hold this gift, for many others though they will need an increased level of psychological assistance to get through to the end of this pandemic, especially given the mental health challenges located within enforced lockdowns. We need to be aware of this, not only for ourselves, but for our clients, families and friends.
Especially as Winter is Coming …
Dib, S., Rougeaux, E., Vázquez-Vázquez, A., Wells, J. C. K., & Fewtrell, M. (2020). Maternal mental health and coping during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK: Data from the COVID-19 New Mum Study. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 151(3), 407–414. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijgo.13397
Fountoulakis, K. N., Apostolidou, M. K., Atsiova, M. B., Filippidou, A. K., Florou, A. K., Gousiou, D. S., Katsara, A. R., Mantzari, S. N., Padouva-Markoulaki, M., Papatriantafyllou, E. I., Sacharidi, P. I., Tonia, A. I., Tsagalidou, E. G., Zymara, V. P., Prezerakos, P. E., Koupidis, S. A., Fountoulakis, N. K., & Chrousos, G. P. (2021). Self-reported changes in anxiety, depression and suicidality during the COVID-19 lockdown in Greece. Journal of Affective Disorders, 279(October 2020), 624–629. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.10.061
Haney, C. (2003). Mental health issues in long-term solitary and “supermax” confinement. Crime and Delinquency, 49(1), 124–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128702239239
Pouso, S., Borja, Á., Fleming, L. E., Gómez-Baggethun, E., White, M. P., & Uyarra, M. C. (2020). Contact with blue-green spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown beneficial for mental health. Science of The Total Environment, 756, 143984. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143984
Unknown. (2020). BAME people are hit hardest by depression during lockdown. The Daily Telegraph, July, 2020–2021. https://search.proquest.com/docview/2419580438?accountid=9727