Jen Gerson: The post-pandemic mental-health crisis is here. It's not what we thought.
Crazy people don't think they're crazy. You can't see it when you're in it.
By: Jen Gerson
Quick question: If you were crazy, would you know it?
Think about it for a minute before you answer. If you're a sane, well-grounded individual with deep connections to consensus reality, you'll have to admit to yourself that the answer is "no." People who have gone off the deep end don't know that they've gone off the deep end — and, in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of the most obvious, and uncomfortably kafkaesque, aspects of the state we colloquially call "crazy." Delusional beliefs are self-reinforcing, and impervious to challenge. Put more simply: crazy people don't know that they're crazy, and sane people have to admit that they might be.
It's a problem.
And it's a serious problem worth examining because I'm going to make a controversial observation here, and I expect just about everyone who reads this column to get their back up about it. At the beginning of COVID-19, we were warned by some of the most august publications and researchers that when the pandemic began to wane, we would all witness a second epidemic of mental-health crises.
That warning doesn't seem to have panned out, exactly. As this more recent op-ed in the Atlantic pointed out, rates of depression and anxiety spiked at the beginning of the pandemic, but then receded. Rates of life satisfaction are near pre-pandemic norms. And the suicide rate has actually declined for reasons no one can quite pin.
"The pandemic has been a test of the global psychological immune system, which appears more robust than we would have guessed. When familiar sources of enjoyment evaporated in the spring of 2020, people got creative. They participated in drive-by birthday parties, mutual-assistance groups, virtual cocktail evenings with old friends, and nightly cheers for health-care workers. Some people got really good at baking," the authors wrote, optimistically.
I think they're wrong. Or, rather, I think we proved to be resilient in all the ways that the authors were looking at, and far more fragile in the ways they weren’t.
I think we're in the middle of the mental-health pandemic right now; I think we're in it so deep that we can't even see it anymore. And I think we can't see it because the crisis is not taking the form we expected it to take.
We expected the post-pandemic mental-health crisis to look the way they used to look — invisible. The depressed sister who hasn't called for months. The anxiety-ridden best friend who drowns her tics in pills and alcohol. For the majority of the population that doesn't suffer from a diagnosable mental-health issue, mental-health crises are often hidden. We expected a traumatic post-pandemic mental-health crisis to look a lot like this — another person’s problem — but on a grander scale.
This assumption leaves our entire framework with a missing link. A mental-health pandemic isn't necessarily going to show up on a self-reported survey about anxiety and depression levels.
It's going to show up in behaviour — and often behaviour that can be rationalized.
Because crazy people don't think they're crazy. You can't see it when you're in it.
Look around; are people acting normal lately? Think of the protests we saw during the election, or the anti-vaccine marches through our downtown cores. Think of the mom wearing two masks who screamed because your kid got too close on the playground — was that rational, grounded, sane behaviour?
Something is happening to a lot of people, and you see it in both the COVID deniers and also those who have made a religion out of the dangers of the disease. There are people out there that still can't collect the mail without taking "precautions." How about the people who are still sanitizing their groceries? That might have been reasonable in the Spring of 2020, when we weren’t sure how COVID spread. Now it looks a lot more like OCD.
Have you not noticed that some of the most brilliant people, after spending months devoid of much human contact, are now acting like raving loons on outlets like Twitter? Increased dependency on a gamified and polarizing social media for socialization during periods of extended isolation seems to have broken the ability to think clearly or behave civilly. This is hard to quantify, but I can’t be the only one to feel as if social media has grown palpably worse over the last year.
Is it hard to find one person in your extended circle who is utterly convinced that they have long COVID — with a list of symptoms that track almost identically to classic expressions of depression or anxiety? Fatigue, exhaustion, lack of motivation, and the dreaded brain fog, etc?
And about those anti-vaccine hysterics. Here's an observation that's going to get me in trouble: how many people protesting hospitals to oppose vaccine mandates and passports are thinking clearly? Certainly some of those folks are simply assholes; some may also have grounded philosophical objections to the various emergency measures. However, how did we go from banging pots for health-care workers to blocking the exits at hospitals over the course of 18 months? I don't think it's a leap to note that there is a rise in reactionary politics that is being fed by a parallel informational universe that equates pandemic measures to imminent totalitarianism; one that thinks the virus is fake, and the vaccine is a delivery vehicle for nanochips that will sterilize and magnetize the population.
Five years ago, if someone you loved told you that they were off to blockade a hospital to stave off imminent civil war because this life-saving vaccine was going to make spoons stick to their arms, we'd know what to call that. It's a paranoid delusion.
Yet we've prevented ourselves from seeing it that way, from seeing all of this as a manifestation of a deep and broad mental-health crisis, because to do so would require us to apply a patina of empathy for these individuals, rather than the cleansing, righteous anger that we feel towards the idiots who are dragging the pandemic out and making life difficult for those who more rightly deserve our dwindling reserves of goodwill — doctors and nurses.
If you were crazy, would you know it? Or would you be so, so sure that you had it right? That you knew up from down?
Or take this example: in the past several weeks, targeted threats against journalists have escalated to such a point that several media organizations and the Canadian Association of Journalists have issued an open statement asking for law enforcement to take action against criminal harassment.
I'm not engaging in any special pleading on my own profession's behalf. I'm noting it for a reason. Without delving into the myriad Problems of Journalism today that many will use to justify abusive behaviour, an increase in targeted harassment is happening for a reason.
The inboxes of public figures — even D-list nobody journalists — are barometers for a society's overall wellness and functionality. The craziness we receive is directly proportional to the level of anger, distrust and dysfunction in society at large. When you gain a public profile, you cease to be perceived as human, and instead become an avatar of an ideology or social pathology — in short, a scapegoat for all that is going right or wrong, and therefore an easy target for individuals who are struggling.
There is also a reason why women and people of colour are particularly targeted with the most vitriolic hatred, and that's simply a reflection of deeper currents of misogyny and racism that always lurk beneath the surface — of sublimated sexual rage and tribal loathing, respectively.
At the extreme end, this is why journalists disappear or are killed in lawless oligarchies and totalitarian states. These are acts that reflect a society in a state of lawlessness.
Now, there are always disturbed individuals in society, and most journalists have run into the odd stalker or harasser. It’s not nice to admit, but in the real world, there is a normal baseline for this behaviour and it is not zero. But when lots of journalists are pointing to the beeping red engine light, you should pay attention. Something is happening.
I'm not writing this column to convince you, or myself, that I'm the last sane woman standing — quite the opposite. I found lockdowns both claustrophobic and deeply destabilizing. The fear of being trapped in my own home radically altered my perception of the pandemic: in my own head, I de-emphasized the risk of the virus, and prioritized the problems with our response to the virus. This is probably why I was optimistic about the Alberta government's now grimly ironic "Open for Summer" plan.
A state of anxiety left me with a prolonged period of manic energy, which kept me distracted from the situation at hand. I made bread. I learned how to create buttercream sugar flowers, and really mastered the skill by piping a hundred of them onto a sheet cake the size of a large lasagna pan. Then I learned how to garden, deluding myself into believing that I might supplement a food supply shock with a few sacks of potatoes and containers of beans and cabbages on a deck the size of a large closet. Then I took up fountain pen ink collecting. Then I helped start The Line, and then I sold a book proposal about Satan. All of this while recovering from baby #2 and trying to raise my eldest.
I wish I could have used this energy more usefully; I would have volunteered at hospitals or tried to help with contact tracing, except none of our governments, as far as I could tell, used COVID-19 to try to galvanize the population with the very acts of sacrifice and service that would have given the crisis meaning and the population an outlet for its nervous energy. I think we would be faring much better right now if we had directed our fear into the sort of collective action that could have bound us together as a society. Instead, we were told that the heroic action was to sit home, relax, watch Netflix and waste away as the Groundhog Day of our lives morphed from comedy to horror. It’s not enough to merely be safe. We need to be of use.
Meanwhile, I can't regret my indulgences. These were all functional ways to handle the bristling inactivity that accompanied a crisis. And now I have my own company and a book to write, and I can make a pretty cake, and I discovered I like to garden. (Also, I learned that I will be in the same deep trouble as everyone else if the grocery stores can't supply basic goods to me and my family.) But these were also attempts to regain a sense of control over my life that the pandemic had taken away.
I was better off than most — hear me owning my privilege. If you've been trapped with unstable income, in a tiny apartment, in a job that wouldn't allow you to stay home, with no family or loved ones nearby, I can only imagine how much harder the last two years have been for you.
All of the things we are seeing right now are the very predictable outcome of the prolonged stress of the pandemic: of an ordinarily healthy population beginning to crack along unseen fissures of deepening social distrust, a splintering informational environment, and a growing fear of an uncertain future.
I recently spoke with John Wright, the executive vice president of Maru Public Opinion. "We have a country where (roughly) 66 per cent of Canadians say they are concerned about the mental health of the people they live with, and 65 per cent are worried about their own mental health, and that's remained steady for the past year and half," he told me.
More than half the population is either worried about themselves or someone they live with, and I'm no math nerd, but that indicates to me that everyone is acting a little crazy right now.
And nobody sees it.
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You write so well.
We were terribly divided to begin with. This was an opportunity (!) to get us all on side, much like the "alien invasion" some used to talk about to get the world on the same page. Instead any action taken was greeted with suspicion, from all sides.
Was is like this during WWII? Were FDR's fireside chats mocked and derided as fake news and misinformation? Instead of "take out your atlas and look at the south Pacific, let me explain our strategy" we get glory holes and "don't take horse paste". Was there anything comparable back then? Maybe saving your bacon grease to make nitroglycerin was their version of washing your groceries.
I'm at the point where I've turned off all mainstream, and get my information from you, and a select few I follow on twitter. For medical advice it's Drs. Hinshaw, Zubin Dumania, John Campbell. Maybe that's crazy, but I sleep better.
As one who fancies himself a bit of a writer with a few opinions now and again, occasionally expressed with wit but always with thought, I can't hold a candle to the quality of the writing and thought in your writing, Jen. Great job. Please keep writing and thank you for doing it.