COVID-19 is not a mental illness: Embracing meaningful, shared human emotions
Pathologising emotional distress harms a person's potential to feel safe and connected. It creates disconnection and isolation – an individual can feel increasingly threatened by the other person's perception of them as less safe, as less in control and ultimately less human, when legitimate human experience is labelled as illness. Increased threat and dis-empowerment can make it more difficult to think clearly, make choices and formulate decision making to relational connection, social distancing and hygiene practices; important processes concerning COVID-19.
Embracing emotional distress as understandable, shared and meaningful, can support individuals and communities to feel safe and more able to connect with personal and mutual empowerment - knowing that feelings are valid, calming the threat systems of self and others. Decreasing the sense of threat supports a person towards choices, hope and meaning.
Whilst COVID-19 is present, it is important that people can develop a sense of safety when experiencing emotional threat. Feeling emotionally safe, to be all that they are, will support a person to feel empowered in making good choices, including adhering to social distancing and hygiene practices and most important an overall sense of connection and wholeness as the 'unique, never to be repeated human' (Deegan) that they are.
The tragedy of pathologising: harm and missed opportunity
The mental health services response to emotional distress in the face of COVID-19 will inevitably continue to include undertones and overtones of the diagnostic and 'treatment' focused approaches. This is a tragedy for two reasons:
Firstly, having feelings that create difficult emotions in the face of the pandemic that is changing all that we know, is not a mental illness; it is a common, understandable and meaningful response by humans to threat and rapid change. Denial of meaningful reality is re-traumatising and oppressive.
Secondly, the incredible potential to build capacity, by embracing equal, common human skills and qualities and to connect with others as a community of compassionate beings, is overlooked when we pathologize human experience.
Pathologizing human emotions related to COVID-19 is destructive to our communities and mirrors the experiences of many survivors over many years: many of those survivors have gone on to become leaders in our communities. The opportunity to avoid repeating the harm, and failing to recognise the wisdom and knowledge of people living with experience of emotional distress, would be a catastrophe of its own as well as missing an opportunity in the global journey of responding to and potential to experience mutual growth through the experience of COVID-19.
The problem of pathologising - problem saturated approach
The first point is problematic as it means that people will be told 'what is wrong' with them by professionals, rather than the person sharing 'what is happening to them' (in the context of COVID-19).
The problematic approach of pathologising is being undertaken to a person in emotional distress, by another person, who themselves are experiencing the very same process of emotional response to the current societal dilemma. The person pathologising may be seeking to cover up and pretend there is a fundamental difference in the process of threat and emotional response between different humans relating to the pandemic – however that principle of difference does not exist. We might call this process of creating the illusions of difference - 'othering'.
When we place people as 'other' and see them as having 'disorders', we misuse power and deny a person the incredible gifts and meanings in being whole humans. We create disconnection and fail to value the unique qualities of humans, both when a person is experiencing and recognising distress and the ability to create connection amidst the distress towards hope and meaning.
Missing the opportunity to reawaken to connection, compassion and meaningful action
The second point is equally, or potentially more problematic if we ignore the incredible potential for hope in relationship to COVID-19. If we value the innate human ability to share stories and develop meaning (Johnstone et al), we can understand the value of human connection and empowerment in mutuality. Therefore, taking resources out of the public purse by increasing 'clinical' professionals roles in common human experience, by suggesting professionals have the answers, we set up a person in distress to 'fail' to meet the 'evidence' of mental health 'interventions', because we are not treating a 'disorder'.
We potentially create a double bind for the individual in distress, like any person who is pathologised in mental health services, when they must concede meaning in legitimate human experience to the narrative of patriarchal constructs of othering in the diagnostic framework. We also create double binds for professionals. The professional will place them self in a position of cognitive dissonance when professing they have the answers (evidenced based interventions) to people's existential reality when clearly, they do not. This is especially important to note and avoid in this unique shared global dilemma that runs in the heart of the existential impasse relating to COVID-19.
In supporting and encouraging communities to provide 'mutual aid' for emotional problems, we can see multiple benefits, not least to release both the person in distress and the would-be professional (role) from the double bind and thus reduce the potential for increased threat and disconnection that inevitably emerges in a double bind.
Mutually supporting the emotional needs within our communities and understanding the expression of emotions as a response to a perceived threat, is especially important during COVID-19. The multifaceted psycho environmental changes that we are all currently experiencing in the world, are an invitation to reawaken to connecting with compassion, not labelling and interventions. The experience in response to connection and compassion includes down-regulation of the arousal /threat system, as an alternative to increasing the sense of threat within the double bind.
As people feel safe and experience more connection, they will naturally connect to their innate skills and qualities of making meaning in times of threat, feel more empowered in their sense of ability to use their cognitive functional brain in day to day activities and respond to their practical and relational needs as an individual, as part of a larger embracing community.
The value of connection (brain and human relational) Is skilfully explained at a brain level by Dan Segal https://youtu.be/f-m2YcdMdFw for those who want to consider further.
The gift of currently emerging emotions
Experiencing strength and value in threat responses, towards a more connected and mutually empowered community, the emotions that could have been pathologised and described as problems can now be seen as a potential gift to the individual and the wider community as an opportunity for mutual growth. The individual can embrace the opportunity to know themselves more deeply and fully, coming out of feelings of fear and isolation more easily and connecting with themself as skilful , and experienced by others as equally valuable in relationship. This creates a 'flow of new life' (E-CPR) in community and mutual empowerment.
Many common themes can be observed when people are connected to their own and others feeling and emotions in a shared human experience including:
- Feeling empowered by a mutual connection
- Recognising self-value and value to the community including all their feelings and emotions
- Reduced fear and distress and down-regulation of nervous system – leading to a sense of safety and empowerment and skill
- Feeling safer and recognising their potential to make choices and decisions that have a positive impact on self and society
- People recognise the positive role they can take in reducing the pandemic when thinking clearly (social distancing, hygiene, etc).
Returning power to hearts in community
The time has come for the emotional well-being response to COVID-19 to be facilitated by communities who are self-isolating, and by reaching out to those without networks to support emotional well-being. As this already happens in many communities, the potential for government and 'professionals' to impede the innate journey of connection, through complicit or implicit pathologising of common emotions as 'mental illness', is a risk to individual and community well-being, costly to the economy and a patriarchal misnomer that fails to meet the principle of 'first do no harm'.
The mental health sector can act with humility in recognising the limited value they have to offer through the diagnostic position, instead recognising the value of supporting the already present platform of communities, in building emotional connection as a way to create emotional safety and meaning at this time. Finding ways to build connection between humans as we socially isolate is possible and the benefits are inevitable. One such concept if www.justlistening.com.au. Many other projects already exist to support and encourage community connection. Many people in the community will already be taking these steps through an innate desire to be in connection. Sharing the wonderful human experience of intentional and mutual connection is a gift to one another and should be promoted and nurtured as an existential imperative if we are to avoid the threat of nihilism in this time of vulnerability.
Whether in isolation and lock-down alone or a group, we can find ways to prioritise connection as a meaningful response to human emotions and distress. Sometimes Just Listening is all we need to find mutual empowerment through the justice of witnessing each of our unique and important narratives and to move away from the problem saturated and dis-empowering narratives of pathologising human experience. An example of this can be heard here: "The Ebb and Flow of COVID-19 Emotions" -
It may be a simple as choosing to embrace the mutual human experience: Reaching into someone when you feel strong and empowered to connect to others who are experiencing distress, or reaching out to find connection when our emotions are inviting us to seek connection in any given moment of fear and vulnerability.
When we embrace the incredible potential in connection and experience our full humanness in human to human interconnectedness, we can reawaken to the wonderful human experience of connection, compassion and meaningful action.