Talk Of COVID-19 & Mental Health Anxiety Diverts Our Attention From Real Crisis. Serious Mental Illnesses

Coronavirus (Photo: oonal, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

(5-22-20) The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a rise in mental health problems. Long-time advocate, D. J. Jaffe worries this growing public awaking will divert us from serious mental illnesses.

A Pop-Psychology Pandemic

Mental-health advocates are more focused on the normal stress and anxiety caused by the coronavirus than with improving care for those who need it most.

“Three months into the coronavirus pandemic,” the Washington Post’s William Van writes, “America is on the verge of another health crisis, with daily doses of death, isolation and fear generating widespread psychological trauma.” The virus and resulting lockdown have doubtless unnerved most people, but stress, anxiety, and even feeling episodically depressed don’t constitute mental illness. They’re normal reactions to a crisis of this enormity.

But pop psychology catastrophizes normality, positions it as a “crisis,” rebrands it as “psychological trauma,” and lends it gravitas that it doesn’t deserve. This response diverts our attention—and mental-health dollars—from the real crisis: the abandonment of people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, who are forced to sleep on streets, in jails, and in the few remaining psychiatric institutions. Leaving these people untreated only worsens the spread of Covid-19.

Yet some mental-health advocates have embraced former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s cynical motto that one should “never let a crisis go to waste.” They’re declaring coronavirus-inspired “psychological distress” and “emotional tolls” the major mental-health issues facing our country. Take bereavement, for example. Every year, 1.7 million families lose a loved one. But the mental-health establishment argues that essential resources must be marshalled because 70,000 families are—as is natural—grieving for loved ones who died of Covid-19. The pain and suffering of those affected by the pandemic is real—it can even lead to depression. But traditional forms of sympathy—phone calls, video-conferencing, social media, cards, and flowers from neighbors and friends—will bring some relief for that pain. Time will help, too.

Meantime, the mental-health industry claims that the millions who lost jobs also suffer psychologically and require counseling. Yet for most of the newly unemployed, the “cure” will arrive when they’re able to get back to work and replenish their bank accounts. If joblessness was a genuine mental-health issue, giving people money wouldn’t solve it.

Every suicide within an allegedly at-risk population, such as health-care workers, is now used to push a narrative—grounded in shaky statistics—that suicide has become rampant within that cohort, due to the coronavirus. Lorna Breen, the hardworking and compassionate head of emergency services at New York’s Allen Hospital, became the public face of this argument among health-care workers after she took her life. Was this tragedy preventable? The hospital system where Breen worked already had “stress management and professional support” procedures in place. But it’s hard to identify at-risk people and almost impossible to prevent them from committing suicide. If someone did recognize that Breen was a danger to herself, however, could she have been helped? Likely not. Allen Hospital is using the pandemic as an excuse to close its psychiatric inpatient unit— something that it has wanted to do long before anyone heard of coronavirus.

Reviving the American economy will require billions in federal funds. Now is the time to focus mental-health spending where it’s essential. The pop-psychology pandemic is preventing efforts to improve care or even maintain services for the seriously mentally ill who need help the most.

This article was first published by City Journal, a publication at the Manhattan Institute Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City.  DJ Jaffe is author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and an adjunct professor at the institute.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.