This is purgatory, a barren parody of real life. We’re living in monochrome, an existence bedevilled by tedium, stripped of spontaneity, robbed of little joys but defined by ever greater stresses. This relentless assault on our wellbeing will only intensify: those left fearing for their imperilled jobs in a nation with a shredded safety net in place of a welfare state; the young being deprived of their best days; the old, denied the dignity and support they deserve in their later years; the millions who were already struggling with their mental health even before the old world collapsed; those imprisoned with domestic abusers, or LGBTQ people locked away with bigoted relatives.
This is a conversation we need to have. As things stand, talk of the mental impact of the world’s greatest crisis for three quarters of a century has been monopolised by corona deniers and anti-lockdown agitators. The crux of their argument, after all, is that the evils inherent in each national public health effort are greater than those caused by the pandemic itself. For those who believe restrictive measures are unavoidable if we are to suppress a virus that claimed tens of thousands of British lives in a matter of weeks, there has been a largely unspoken fear that discussing the often gruesome impact on people’s wellbeing will simply concede the narrative to deniers who are marginal in public opinion but disproportionately loud in media and political circles. These self-professed sceptics wrap themselves in libertarian garb while pretending that, somehow, those who value human life above all other considerations are fetishising repressive measures. In their fantastical caricature of socialism, this is the authoritarian dystopia the left secretly always craved but could never achieve through the ballot box.
This nightmare is no such thing, of course. But many of us still retain a sense of guilt about talking about the impact the pandemic has had on our lives when so many others have suffered so much worse. Everyone should feel entitled to open up about all we have lost since the “before times” disappeared in the middle of March. Prevented from seeing the people and doing the things we love, for months – with worse to come – is an assault on what makes us human. That we are locked in limbo, unable to reliably make plans for the months ahead, only adds to the mental strain. How many of us psychologically bet the house on a vaccine, encouraged by our government to believe it could have arrive by September this year?
Young people in particular have formed a cordon sanitaire around their older and more vulnerable fellow citizens, an unprecedented peacetime act of generational sacrifice – and at such cost to themselves. According to the Lancet, children’s mental health deteriorated in lockdown more than any other age group, while eight in 10 young people reported that the pandemic had made their mental health worse, with one in four opting for “much worse”. We know that the Tories’ ideologically driven cuts left the country woefully unprepared for the pandemic, from the lack of personal protective gear to a social security system that leaves people without the financial means to self-isolate. The same applies to our woefully underfunded mental health services, which simply do not have the resources available to deal with this growing crisis.
It might seem like a contradictory position: how can those of us who denounced the government for not locking down swiftly enough also bemoan the impact on our mental wellbeing? Yet the deprivation of our liberty was not supposed to be an endless cycle of outbreaks and national lockdowns; it was to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed so it could continue to function, to stop needless deaths and to buy time to establish a functioning test and trace system. Its failure means our mental wellbeing has been needlessly tossed on a bonfire – not because of partying youngsters but because of a government that relied on shambolic private contractors and sought to put the economy ahead of human life, with terrible consequences for both.
The most authoritarian peacetime measures in the history of democracy – combined with an unprecedented economic shock and the looming collapse in living standards – has produced a seismic mental health crisis. It would be a grave error if we refused an open conversation about this emergency out of fear that doing so would only embolden coronavirus deniers, or belittle the pain of those grieving for their loved ones. From Japan to India, suicide rates are soaring. Only an honest discussion about the mental health crisis will pressure governments to provide the resources and services needed to support the most vulnerable. Ours is an age of necessary sacrifice, but that should not mean needless self-harm. As millions are caught once again in the ever-tightening vice of lockdown, it is a national conversation we need more than ever.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org