From the start of the pandemic, the government have pushed blame onto the public for their own failed strategy. Psychologist Emma C explains how this is driving a nationwide mental health crisis – and why protecting our collective mental health requires a Zero Covid strategy.
Covid has caused many of us great anxiety, fear, hopelessness and depressive feelings, and it’s no wonder. Our worlds have been turned upside down, we’ve been presented with a terrifying threat to our physical safety, and many of us have been socially isolated. For some people, being locked down has meant being locked in with a more immediate threat of domestic violence. Many of the everyday tasks that we would normally do without thinking (or with mild anxiety for some), have become sources of severe anxiety, like going to the supermarket or using public transport. Added to that, we’ve not been able to do activities that usually provide a source of pleasure and connection to others which help defend against poor mental health: no hugs with our loved ones, no being able to see relatives, especially if they live further away, no parties, no festivals, holidays few and far between – the list goes on. These factors all further heighten our state of anxiety.
People are losing jobs and facing reduced incomes, so ensuring our basic needs are met (food, shelter, warmth) is an uphill battle for many. One way of conceptualising psychological well-being was proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1). He proposed that we strive to meet our needs in a series of priority – beginning with our basic needs (food, shelter, warmth), then our safety needs (security, health), progressing to connecting to others and belonging, then self -esteem and freedom, and finally self-actualisation (achieving one’s full potential). He theorised that this does not necessarily occur in a strict order, but is a general framework that we move between in the context of our lives. For example, someone who does not have basic shelter, food and warmth, and does not have a sense of safety and security, would find it more difficult to feel belonging or to seek or gain a sense of self-esteem. It suggests that we are not able to reach those things we associate with good mental health without our basic needs being met first.
Tory policy: making a bad mental situation worse
We can all agree that Covid is bad for our mental health. However, on the one hand there is the impact of Covid, and on the other, adding to this, there is the psychological impact of the incoherent, woefully inadequate strategy being applied by our government in response to it. Some countries have followed a Zero Covid strategy, which here would mean a full UK-wide lockdown until new cases in the community have been reduced to close to zero; an effective find, test, trace, isolate and support system; regular Covid screening in many settings, and where necessary, supported quarantine; and guaranteeing the livelihood of everyone who loses money because of the pandemic. Variations of these demands can be found on the Zero Covid campaign website, which is pushing to popularise this approach to ending the pandemic by pursuing a Zero Covid strategy.
The failure to apply a similar strategy in the UK is having an incredibly harmful impact upon our mental health. The government has argued that lockdowns are bad for mental health (which is true), but their current strategy has necessitated repeated lockdowns (and the negative psychological effects of these) while still letting the virus run rampant.
The constant threat of further lockdowns (and even of the introduction of new ‘tiers’ of restrictions) reduces our sense of safety in our environment. In physiological terms, that means that our stress response keeps going, the cortisol keeps on flowing, our immune systems are suppressed and we have an urge to fight, run or freeze. I have friends who have worked as keyworkers throughout the lockdown and have little fear about the virus itself (believing hand hygiene, social distancing and ventilation is enough to keep them relatively safe), but who have been caused incredible pain by the perpetual threat of lockdowns and restrictions.
Passing the buck, blaming ‘the public’
One of the nasty side effects of being governed by a party with such an incoherent and inconsistent strategy, where they put the onus on individuals to make ‘the right decisions’ rather than leading with a clear aim to eradicate Covid and a reasonable plan about how they will achieve this, is the enormous psychological stress this places on individuals. From speaking to friends and colleagues and following the narratives in the media, people seem to be in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when you have conflicting beliefs, or you behave in a way that conflicts with your values / beliefs; the effect is stronger the more importance you attribute to the decision and the number of dissonant beliefs you hold at once (2). To give an example in relation to Covid, one may think, ‘I want to keep my family safe from the virus’, but then also have to go into work to earn money (and feed your family); or, you might think, ‘Staying away from my grandparents protects them from the virus’, and feel this conflict with the value you place on maintaining those relationships and helping your relatives to avoid loneliness. Balancing these, in my experience (personal and professional) leads to feelings of guilt, fear, and shame, which fuels and complicates the emotional responses we’re already having in response to the threat of the virus.
These particular examples of emotional distress are not driven by the virus itself – they are powered by how the government responds to the virus. If we were to introduce mass, regular testing (like the scale recently tried in Liverpool), it would become much safer for you to see your gran, and the decision would become easier. If we were to introduce automatic sick pay for all workers with Covid symptoms, people do not have to grapple with their conflicting priorities of feeding their family versus protecting them.
A ‘long Covid’ crisis for mental health
When the government refuses to adopt these and similar measures as part of a Zero Covid strategy, they are abdicating their responsibilities and passing on the emotional labour to us. Why should we accept shouldering this burden?
As long as the government refuses to implement a Zero Covid strategy, the psychological impact of the crisis upon all of us will become heavier and heavier. When people have lived within a threat-focused environment, the body and mind do not necessarily ‘spring back’ to normality when the threat level has readjusted. That means that even if the vaccine is effective with all strains of the virus, and we successfully follow a plan for vaccinations which sees a large proportion of people vaccinated by next summer, the population will continue to feel on high alert for threats for some time thereafter, experiencing all the distress that comes along with that.
Our mental health services and organisations are not prepared for this. Working as a psychologist within the community, and I know that NHS mental health provision (particularly immediate support for people at risk of seriously harming themselves) was on its knees before Covid. Years of underfunding and cuts by Conservative governments have decimated our services. Providing therapy support in the context of the ever-present threat of lockdowns has been challenging. I’ve seen my colleagues go above and beyond to try and continue this (mostly remotely), but we are workers without the tools to do our job. Our presence with another person and the relationship we develop with them is our greatest tool, and without it we are limited in how we can be there for people.
Fighting back for a Zero Covid strategy
We need a Zero Covid strategy now, so that we can start turning the page on this mental health crisis, and so that mental health support workers can start to be there safely for people in the way they need us to be – present, alongside, in person.
The vaccine will not come soon enough for us to avoid the lasting psychological impact of repeated lockdowns and individualised responsibility upon our relationships and our lives. We need to feel secure that there is a transparent, well thought-out strategy in place to ensure reaching Zero Covid, but also in preparation for the next virus that occurs. We need to demand this immediately.
This strategy should address and consider how we support people’s psychological wellbeing going through this kind of crisis. During the first lockdown we saw a huge array of ideas from local communities about how this could be done – from people setting up street-level WhatsApp groups to deliver necessities to each other, to people volunteering to call elderly people living alone to talk, to creative actions across the country to lift people’s spirits. A Zero Covid strategy could and should build on all of this – meeting people’s basic needs of food, shelter and warmth, but also going further, and aiming to build connections and shared coping resources in the broadest sense. For instance, while the furlough scheme continues, those with creative talents could be encouraged to use their skills to extend existing projects (and develop more) which involve communities and focus on ameliorating psychological distress. Organising to develop good mental health during Covid shouldn’t be limited to the availability of a therapist and a hospital bed when we reach crisis point, but should also incorporate meeting basic needs alongside developing a sense of safety and social connection.
Covid has hit our mental health hard, but our government’s failed strategy and blame-shifting tactics have hit it harder. To get through this together, we all need a Zero Covid strategy.
(1) Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.
(2) Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.