The first wave of COVID caused huge suffering, and has led to warnings of an ‘epidemic’ or ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems. But there is another, more hopeful story to tell, about how people coped and even thrived during the adversity of 2020. It’s important to remember this as we head into the winter and a likely second wave.
The Collective Psychology Project has been researching how people coped, for a report for the Wellcome Trust called Collective Resilience. We were interested in how people discovered the ‘active ingredients’ of mental health, not just through therapy and pills, but also through self-care and mutual aid activities — from poetry to philosophy, from baking to cycling, from online learning to joining a neighbourhood support group.
What we discovered tallied with a lot of evidence, such as from the What Works Centre for Well-Being, about how people cope and flourish through non-medical activities like exercise, gardening, the arts, faith, philosophy & spirituality.
Here are some examples:
Arts and creativity
From pop-up public art to TikTok dance trends, from pandemic poetry to a baking craze that drove the price of yeast up by more than 6,000%, people have found joy and meaning in the arts and creativity. UCL’s study of 70,000 adults’ mental health during the pandemic found that 22% engaged more with arts during the lockdown period than usual, and that engaging in creative activities — art, gardening, hobbies, reading fiction — was the single most helpful activity for people’s well-being.
Family and relationships
The lockdown forced us apart, but also brought us closer together. In one survey, 25% of parents said the lockdown had brought them closer to their children, while only 5% said it had made relations worse. Young people were the worst hit by loneliness, but also the most connected online. And neighbourhoods became closer knit too: in the UK, 64% of adults felt that their communities had ‘come together to help each other’ during the crisis.
Religion, philosophy and meaning-making
Google searches for prayer reached their highest ever level during the pandemic. Young people reconnected with their inherited faiths through a wave of online religious observance, and one in five Brits say they turned to psychology and philosophy to find meaning during the crisis. There have been sharp increases in the sales of Seneca’s Letters and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (itself written during a pandemic).
Nature and green spaces
One survey suggested that 63% of people felt more connected to nature during lockdown; a boom in cycling has led to calls for the redesign of cities to make them more bike-friendly; seed shops sold out as people around the world started gardening; and the sudden improvement in emissions and air pollution globally have shown us what rapid cuts look and feel like. We rediscovered the importance of connecting to other species as well — although the spike in puppy sales raised concerns about impulse pet shopping. A majority of people don’t want the world to go back to how it was, and want green policies to be at the heart of recovery plans.
Games and sports
This was the lockdown of gaming, with sales of games consoles so high they had a tangible effect in pushing up UK inflation. People found peace in Animal Crossing, connected to each other with online quiz nights, and logged on to online fitness and yoga classes, underlining the extent to which play becomes more important than ever in times of stress.
Volunteering and mutual aid
At least 6,000 new mutual aid groups appeared around the world during the pandemic according to the Mutual Aid Wiki (with the true figure likely to be far higher). They’ve supported people emotionally and materially when governments have failed, played a vital role in helping people to recover from and learn about Covid-19, and given individuals and communities alike a sense of agency and empowerment at a hugely challenging time. Click here to watch an interview with the administrators of the BodyPolitic mutual aid group, which was set up and is run by people who suffer from ‘long COVID’.
Education and learning
Over a billion children were out of school because of the pandemic. In some cases, teachers self-organised to provide them with online classes; many more young people turned to informal online learning during lockdown, with MITx online courses receiving over half a million enrollments. And the pandemic has provoked fresh thinking on further education, which could ultimately help to solve pre-existing problems in student mental health.
People had to develop new ways to say goodbye to loved ones at both the bedside and the graveside, while health workers and Covid patients have faced high levels of trauma. But there was also a renewed sense of meaning and transcendence among health workers: so-called ‘post-traumatic growth’. And the crisis has also created an opportunity for a fresh and more holistic approach to trauma treatments (like, say, whole-person approaches using the arts, nature, spirituality or psychedelic therapy).
What conclusions can we draw from this? Here are some personal suggestions and reflections:
- Difficult times bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. As Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘Difficulties reveal people’s characters’. Most of us are finding the pandemic incredibly hard, we’re tired, anxious and sometimes feel defeated. But there’s cause for hope too — the emergency is bringing out the best in people, and helping us rediscover what really matters.
- Doctors and health authorities should be careful not to pathologize the normal and appropriate suffering people feel in hard times, or to immediately prescribe pills for emotional suffering. Anti-depressants can be helpful in the short-term, but they also have side effects and can lead to long-term dependency. Declaring a mental health ‘epidemic’ and saying mental health services are the only solution can create bottlenecks for services that either don’t exist or have long waiting lists.
- Instead, as well as supporting mental health services, we should also emphasize people’s strengths, assets and natural coping skills, including community approaches like getting to know your neighbours or joining local mutual aid groups. This empowers people rather than making them feel weaker and more dependent on medical experts.
- For two decades, as part of the ‘politics of well-being’, policy makers have tried to improve people’s happiness in schools, companies and society. There is some evidence this is counter-productive, especially in difficult times. It can make people ashamed of feeling anxiety, anger or grief, even if these emotions are appropriate. Instead of focusing narrowly on happiness, we can help people develop psychological flexibility, and discover what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose, especially in adversity. This could make people more resilient and less prone to ‘the happiness trap’ (ie avoiding activities that make them feel anxious in the short-term).
- Mental health and flourishing involve all aspects of society, from the economy to the arts to travel and green spaces. Building a flourishing organisation or society means taking a joined-up approach. That joined-up approach needs to come from the top — from the head of state, or the CEO of an organisation, or the head of a school or university.
- An example of that joined-up approach to flourishing is social prescribing — perhaps 25% of people who go to see their GP (local doctor) don’t have anything physically wrong with them. Instead, they’re mainly suffering from loneliness and disconnection. Under a new NHS programme, the GP can refer them to a ‘link worker’, who then connects them to local community groups (sports, arts, faith and philosophy, and so on). Rather than asking ‘what’s wrong with you’ they can ask ‘what matters to you? What do you value?’
- The challenge is that we are discovering the importance of these community approaches to flourishing just as the pandemic destroys community infrastructure — shutting down theatres, churches, youth groups, sports facilities and pubs. Yes, online courses have boomed, but we can’t go entirely digital, nor should governments only support big national arts projects. We all need to support local organisations that foster well-being, especially local companies.
- In an age of emergency, you are only as strong as your community. The fantasy of the invulnerable Stoic individual is just that - a fantasy. We need each other, now more than ever, so the best thing you can do to support your long-term mental health is to invest in your community and in community relationships.
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