Could the Covid-19 crisis improve our mental health?

    31 March 2020

    For a member of an ‘at-risk’ age cohort, my grandma is surprisingly sanguine about Covid-19. When I tried to bridge the subject, I was treated to story of a neighbour’s house being blown up by an undiscovered, (until-then) unexploded bomb during the War.

    “What was that noise, nanny?” she asked her carer over breakfast.

    “A bomb dear. Elbows OFF the table!”

    Comparative calm amongst the elderly isn’t limited to my family. My American girlfriend’s 85-year grandmother responded to various concerned enquiries with a group email explaining that polio was much worse and that none of the wars or diseases she’d known were an excuse to succumb to fear. Faith in God, she concluded, should be a source of strength to everyone.

    In some ways, it is those at the other end of the risk spectrum who face a test as this virus spreads. A disease which kills maybe 2 per cent of victims might not seem epoch-making to those born when the national life expectancy was around 60, but to 20-somethings like me it’s truly unprecedented.

    How does one put curfews or, worse, Greggs closing its doors into perspective without the reference point of nightly incendiary bombing? What if Netflix gets cuts off? Will there be riots? Should I buy a gun? Why did I just stockpile toilet-roll?

    Much has been made of the ‘Blitz Spirit’, and whether the younger generations have it. I am edging towards the belief that it’s a learnt, rather than innate, mindset; Young people might not ‘have it’ yet, but that’s because this is their first real test.

    Okay – I’ll concede the facts don’t immediately indicate that ‘Generation Z’ (the cohort born after 1994) is well suited to crises.

    That ‘faith in God’ my girlfriend’s grandma appealed to isn’t likely to be the source of much respite for your average virus-wary British youngster. Only 1 per cent of 18-24 years olds report any affiliation with the Church of England – an organisation which once encompassed the majority of the British population. Data on the rapid decline of Methodism and Presbyterianism in the British Social Attitudes survey suggest that the death of Anglicanism isn’t being made up for by a surge in non-conformity. In other words: Church – the default centre of community and spiritual support for centuries – is foreign to young people.

    Though the widespread no-platforming of controversial speakers – most recently former Home Secretary Amber Rudd – on grounds of student “welfare” are amusing examples of mental fragility, the statistics on young people’s mental health are sobering. Last year, a survey commissioned by the Prince’s Trust found amount the percentage of 16-25 year olds who disagree with the statement “I find life really worth living” had doubled in ten years – to 18 per cent. The same report found that self-reported anxiety increased from 37 per cent to 55 per cent of respondents.  A study conducted by the University of Liverpool revealed that depression and self-harm increased over the same period, though not to the same extent.

    So where’s the room for optimism?

    Anyone who has talked to one of the wartime generation will note the recalled sense of purpose; the glint of pride in their eyes which interspersed the moments of melancholy. Already that feeling of communal purpose seems to be creeping into my interactions with friends and neighbours. An enthusiastic 21-year-old has been appointed our street’s coronavirus coordinator, whilst a group of local girls has started distributing weekly letters, complete with uplifting poems and passages from the Bible. An elderly, wheelchair-bound neighbour has had to begun turning away supplies because a “charming young man” has assumed responsibility.

    Social media – so often the source of anxiety – has been overtaken by affirmations of solidarity. Public health messages have consistently been the top trending Twitter hashtags (#ChangeWalktoWank was #1 trending last week), a Facebook-broadcasting PE teacher has become a rock-star, and quarantine ‘memes’ (one of the best innovations of my generation) abound.

    The positive mental effects of what Émile Durkheim would have labelled ‘collective consciousness’ (the feeling of belonging to a community) may already be visible. Google searches for ‘depressed’ have declined dramatically since the end of February, and are now at their lowest volume in 5 years. Searches for related terms like ‘depression’, ‘therapist’ and ‘psychiatrist’ have all seen sharp declines to their lowest levels in at least 12 months, out of proportion with seasonal mood swings in previous years. The evidence is tentative, but encouraging.

    For my part, I’ve found myself catching up with family and, for the first time I can remember, reading the Bible.

    Perhaps I’ll be writing a familiar email in 60 years’ time.