Ethan Eisen

Mental health still plays second fiddle: Covid’s psychology lessons part 1

If I were giving a visual presentation about why the most recent lockdown is so stressful, I would put three items up on the chalkboard: first, cases are spiking; second, kids need to be in school; and third, when exposed, a strict quarantine is necessary.  The way I see it, any two of these can work together pretty well:  you can have a spike in cases and strict quarantine rules (that will bring kids back to school soon); you can have a spike in cases and keep kids in school (but you may have to relax how quarantine works); and you can have kids in school and strict quarantine rules (but not during times when cases are spiking).  But the combination of these three items has led to a very predictable outcome: the number of quarantined families I know personally has grown at a remarkable clip over the past two weeks, and the families are struggling.

This reality has renewed a conversation that has recurred too often over the past year: what is the right way to balance the sometimes-opposing values of protecting the physical safety of the population versus protecting their mental or emotional safety? Of course, in some ways, protecting physical health is a major contributor to preserving society’s mental health—the more people who become ill and die, the greater the mental and emotional strain.

But in other ways, this dichotomy is real.  For example, the decision to lock down the country in advance of last year’s Passover seder surely saved lives; it also generated tremendous sadness, grief, anxiety, and anger, often among those whom the strict lockdown was designed to protect.  Many articles have catalogued the physical toll that ongoing isolation has caused for older adults, and even now, nine months later (and with Passover less than three months away), many of those who ate alone for the Seder recall that as a traumatic time.

The deleterious effects of emotional and psychological strain are not limited to older adults.  Just last week, the Times of Israel reported that Elem, a nonprofit welfare organization, saw increases of 170-480% among youth for alcohol use, substance abuse, self-harm, and violent activity, compared to this time last year.  Only the coming months will give us a full picture of the economic destruction that has taken place, with the likely mental health effects that typically accompany financial insecurity and instability.

Some of this suffering may result from necessary life-saving decisions.  But as I have heard many stories over the months, there is also a great deal of real and acute suffering that seems to result from insufficient attention by decision-makers at various levels of government to the diverse needs of everyday Israelis, and to the effects that this indifference has on the population’s emotional wellbeing.

One recurring story has involved schooling for kids.  At least at my children’s schools (and almost all of the other schools that I am aware of), when live classes are held in the school building, they are not offered over zoom as well.  For some students, being in a physical school with a live teacher and live students is essential for their education and emotional wellbeing.  Similarly, for some parents, they need the schools to be open so that they can work or tend to the needs of their other children.

However, for other parents, there are other considerations that make sending their children to school extremely difficult.  Many households include older or otherwise high-risk family members.  One of my daughters has told me about the torment felt by a classmate who faced the impossible choice of going to school so that she can learn, or stay home to reduce the risk of bringing coronavirus home to her grandfather—one can only imagine the pressure and anxiety this young student faced as she was terrified that she might infect her own elderly grandfather!  Alternatively, other families are unable to quarantine according to the guidelines, so they prefer not sending to school to avoid that reality. Other times, children are quarantined for non-school related reasons, and they are not able to receive any live instruction from a teacher.

One solution seems fairly straightforward: set up classrooms so that students can be in attendance either in school or from home, or at least post a video of live classes so that homebound students can keep up with work and feel connected to their classmates. Some schools have probably done this already, but those are in the minority and, to my knowledge, these changes have been made with private funding.  There is an added benefit that fewer students in the classroom means less opportunity for the virus to spread.

Of course, there may be other solutions that are more workable.  But as it stands, many families face tremendous pressure of wanting their children to advance their education and have social outlets, but are not able to manage the consequences of their child’s exposure in school.  And the government and school systems, by and large, have simply ignored these complexities that families have been struggling to balance for close to a year.

The question of balancing emotional health and physical safety exists in every sector of society.  Businesses have been closed, causing untold numbers of citizens to face paralyzing anxiety about their ability to pay for basic needs.  Cultural events, which enrich people’s lives and allow for welcomed escape from the daily pressures of these times, have been cancelled.  With the right funding and guidance, one imagines that commerce and culture would have been able to set up coronavirus-friendly arrangements while keeping risk of exposure relatively low.

Instead of tasking members of government and leadership to think about creative solutions that support the  country’s mental health, as well as allocating sufficient resources to implement their recommendations, we have seen mental health concerns relegated to low-priority lip service—and this approach has had real-life consequences for many people.

As we are hopefully on the cusp of turning the corner on the pandemic, it is still not too late to make real changes that support the emotional wellbeing of citizens of all ages across the country.  But to make these changes, we need leadership to take seriously the suffering that the population has endured for too long.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life."
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