Mental health: We can’t tolerate the intolerable

by Eóin Dawson

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been speculation about what impact the lockdown and other measures have had on people’s mental health. While some services have seen a reduction in referrals, with life’s ordinary pressures eased for some, certain groups have been left vulnerable by the lockdown. 

Emergency services in crisis 

Phone counselling service Childline reports that it delivered 43% of last year’s total counselling sessions in the first seven weeks of lockdown. Many of those who rely on face-to-face counselling to maintain their mental health have found that phone counselling just isn’t the same and have presented to emergency services in crisis. There has also been a spike in eating disorder referrals. 

The pandemic has exposed many things, including the eating patterns of many young people, particularly young women, striving towards unattainable beauty standards and seeking to internalise a sense of control over one aspect of their lives at least. Young people also find themselves cut off from key support in the form of friends.

Reduction in services 

There has also been an increase in reports of primary-school-age children and their parents struggling to cope. Children as young as four have presented to crisis mental health services with concerns that they are a significant risk to themselves or others. This is reflective of the needs of young children to have an enriched, engaging and social environment. It also demonstrates the impact that a reduction in mental service availablity is having on families. 

However, it’s important to recognise that, pandemic or not, the state of people’s mental health is often in large part a reflection of their material conditions. Working-class people are most vulnerable to these effects. Those with little or no outdoor space, limited access to transport to outdoor spaces, and limited income to struggling to cope with lockdown, mental ill health is too often a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Mental health practitioners are acutely aware of this and avoid invalidating people by trying to teach them to tolerate the intolerable. The reality is that to attempt to do so would in itself be harmful.

Massive investment needed 

In addition to the economic debt, there will be a huge mental health debt from this crisis. The looming mental health crisis will inevitably be compounded by the unfolding economic crisis. The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to withhold mental health services or deny access to living conditions that make many such services redundant. Mass investment must be made in mental health services now, adapting existing services to be able to deliver even under pandemic conditions. The current workforce must be expanded and upskilled. Even before the pandemic and the psychological harm it has caused, mental health services were overstretched. The need for investment has never been more urgent.

Important a role as they have to play, the limitations of mental health services must also be acknowledged. No amount of counselling or mindfulness will successfully train people to tolerate the intolerable. The most effective way to improve people’s mental health is to liberate them from poverty, hardship, oppression and marginalisation. This means liberation from the intolerable conditions which capitalism as a system requires, and replace it with a socialist system that enriches ordinary people’s material and social environment.