The Psychological Impact of Lockdowns

From the perspective of a mental health professional who still counsels people every day: What’s going on psychologically in this crisis?

Stir-craziness. Cabin fever. People have been denied their sense of purpose.

They also have lost their sense of choice.

If the authorities hadn’t wiped out virtually ALL options, people would be able to make cost-benefit analyses, case by case. “Should I skip this activity, or not?” We have lost the right or the ability to use our minds in this way. Psychologically, we are already in a state of martial law. Suddenly we all find ourselves living in something like a totalitarian regime. The food is still on the shelves and hospitals are still open (thankfully) … and we have the Internet. But that’s pretty much it.

This is all a shock to the psychological system.

What sustains most people right now is a sense that this is only temporary. But it’s also mixed with a lot of anxiety. People sense the contradictions, fear and uncertainty in our “leaders”. We’re told repeatedly that it’s temporary. But there’s no end date on it. Will it REALLY all end on April 30? Will it REALLY all end on May 15? Or June 1? How do we know that? Even so, June 1 is still a long time.

Those are fair questions, because every level of official contradicts him- or herself repeatedly. Even Dr. Fauci — the Anointed One, beyond reproach (for now) — speaks with authority one moment, and then admits in another moment that we have no idea how bad this virus is, because we don’t have nearly enough facts. The one thing he’s consistent about is that this will go on a long time. Does that mean the lockdowns will continue for a long time? If not, why not? We’re told they’re essential now; that we would all die without them. Why will that be any different in July? Or next Christmas? Based on their own facts and recommendations, that is?

In a sense, we’re in the state of young children, who perhaps do not understand but sense the errors, contradictions and evasions of their elders. It’s not a good place for a child psychologically, and it’s not good for adults, either.

Uncertainty and denial of choice are the worst prescriptions for a person’s mental state. We’re talking about the development of anxiety and mood disorders in people who never had those problems, and never otherwise would have developed them. I guarantee: These are going to develop given enough time. We will have a mental health crisis on our hands perhaps bigger than coronavirus.

Our officials consider none of this. All they seem to care about are optics and ensuring that nobody gets coronavirus on their watch. But there’s an enormous tradeoff here. As a society, we are trading off the sanity and serenity of virtually EVERYONE in exchange for a THEORY that trying to control everyone’s behavior will lead to a more favorable medical result, and soon. That remains to be seen. So far, it’s not going well, because the headlines scream daily that coronavirus is expanding despite the unprecedented level of control over our daily lives. Perhaps one might say, “Well, let’s try this shelter-in-place for a month.” Perhaps most would have done that anyway, even voluntarily, without the coercion of the government. We’ll never know, because coercion was implemented almost immediately.

Now we have established the precedent. So long as the government perceives it as an emergency, the government now has unlimited power to do whatever it wants — for the entire period the government deems it as an emergency. Sure, the government consults with scientists. But they’re all government scientists. And only the scientists who say things the government wants people to hear get to weigh in. Not all scientists are saying precisely what Dr. Fauci says. But somehow Dr. Fauci knows all.

Consciously, nobody wants to be seen as questioning anything, especially at a time like this. But subconsciously, millions of people are uneasy, at best. It’s not World War II. In that era, the enemy was clearly outside of our government. Most people got on board with the government — agree or disagree — because they didn’t doubt that their own government was on their side. Most Americans — regardless of their politics — now mistrust our government, for a variety of reasons. And most distrust the media — to put it mildly. I’m only telling you this is not good for anybody’s psychological state. All the social and psychological problems present in society pre-coronavirus are operative now. With choice and personal destiny completely removed from daily life, the psychological status of Americans will not improve.

Most people seem somewhat depressed or anxious right now. I don’t detect much or any cheer that “we’re all in this together, we’ll get through this.” Most don’t have the sense of phoniness required to utter such empty platitudes, especially when those platitudes seem at odds with both objective reality and their own emotional states. There’s too much evasion, confusion and contradiction going on for that. I don’t see Democrats suddenly hugging Trump supporters. If anything, the hostility has grown. I base that on what people tell me, from both sides of the political aisle.

Either those symptoms of mood and anxiety disorder will worsen in most people, or at some point many will start to get angry. Anger is healthy, but it has to be channeled toward a rational demand at restoring what was lost. We have lost our freedom. It’s rational to be angry and frustrated over that. We have lost our way of life. It’s far deeper than politics and government, although those areas are relevant, of course.

It has to do with whether you believe you control your destiny, or you’re totally powerless over it. If you fall into (and stay in) the powerless mindset, you will lose. You will have given up, at which point your political freedom won’t matter much.

If you fight and learn how to be angry at the right people for the right reasons, then this disaster could transform itself into an amazing opportunity. It’s no time to give in, or to give up.

Stay well! Perhaps mentally, most of all.—Michael J Hurd

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