COVID and the Future of Mental Health

The pandemic's effects on society and mental health are deep and irreversible.

Posted Aug 07, 2020

The pandemic’s exacerbation of inequality and isolation is irreversible.

The New York Times had two hard-hitting “non-news” articles: one by conservative political columnist David Brooks on the future of America; the other by Democratic icon Michelle Obama on her state of mind (it isn’t good).

Brooks, reacting in large part to Donald Trump, wonders how conservatism, the Republican Party, and America will recover from “Trumpism” (check out the remarkable graphic).

Brooks’ analysis of Trump’s success:

They understood that Republican voters were no longer motivated by a sense of hope and opportunity; they were motivated by a sense of menace, resentment and fear. At base, many Republicans felt they were being purged from their own country — by the educated elite, by multiculturalism, by militant secularism.

The generic remedy for Brooks:

Now it’s clear that the party needs to stop catering to the corporate class and start focusing on the shop owners, the plumbers, the salaried workers. It needs to emphasize the dignity of work and honor those who are not trying to make millions, not looking for handouts, but just want to build middle-class lives in a stable social order.

But, as I have written for PT, the coronavirus has exacerbated social divisions between the privileged and the disadvantaged. It is not clear how the pandemic can move the United States in the direction that Brooks outlines.

There is a racial dimension to this worsening of conditions, with Black Americans suffering the most both economically and medically.

At the same time that Brooks announced his vision of the urgent need for a new direction for conservatism and Republicans, the Times published Michelle Obama’s revelation that she is suffering from “low-grade depression.” She traces her mood disorder to “the effects of quarantine and news about civil unrest and politics,” including “the racial strife," and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”

And so, while definitively at the privileged end of the social spectrum, Ms. Obama is feeling, indirectly, the same effects of isolation and inequality exacerbated by the pandemic.

Yet Zach Rhoads and I emphasize in our book, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy, that these two social dynamics undercut the community, engagement, and purpose we see as the solutions for addiction and mood disorder epidemics that are rampant in the U.S., and have been even prior to COVID.

If we see Brooks’s call to conservative action as not hopeful, even futile, and yet the social chasms and deprivations that he addresses as the source of depression among even the most advantaged among us, this presents a bleak picture indeed.

Michelle Obama addresses her emotional issues with real-world (but privileged) activity and structure: “keeping a routine, including exercise, getting fresh air, and having a regular dinner time.”

Good advice, for sure, but options that are unavailable to the deprived people whose plights so trouble Ms. Obama, who are overcome by financial and basic health woes.

We are not in a good place; the future looks bleak.

*It seems clear that the disadvantaged Brooks refers to are White, while the racial strife Ms. Obama is pained by concerns Black Americans. Indeed, that these provocative thought leaders and the parties they represent are focused on equally disadvantaged but racially different, groups are yet another important part of America’s irremediable social fissures.