What Lockdown tells us about our priorities

I have a policy. A firm policy: never to read the articles Yahoo (or Google, or any other aspect of my computer) tells me to.

Occasionally, I break my own rules. It never ends well. Recently, I was offered an article that promised to be interesting: a psychologist on why Boris Johnson keeps hesitating to take the country into lockdown, when ‘the experts’ are telling him to do so. The article appeared in theconversation.com – sometimes an intelligent source of discussion. Not this time. I am sure I have read worse articles in my life, but I can’t think of many.

The author offered a few ‘insights’ but the premise of her piece was quite simple. To quote: “Johnson was faced with a binary decision: lockdown or continue with current restrictions. Locking down costs the economy, while failing to lockdown costs lives.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that few decisions we face are ever binary: Appeasement, or War? for example, leaves aside whole areas of international negotiation, trade embargos, support for internal resistance movements; This school or that one? ignores the possibility that a family might move, or home educate. Sometimes, we may not be able to see a third alternative, but there nearly always is one.

But as I say: let’s leave that aside and just think about the author’s simplistic second sentence: “Locking down costs [only] the economy, while failing to lockdown costs lives.”

As it happens, lockdown costs lives. I am not a statistician and therefore I’m not going to start an argument about whether more lives are being lost or permanently scarred by lockdown than are being saved. I am, however, saying that any psychologist writing about lockdown is guilty of an unforgivable (and I don’t use that word lightly – I’ve spent years arguing that we should think very carefully before suggesting that anything is unforgivable) – an unforgivable omission when she fails to acknowledge that (a) the costs of lockdown are astronomical in terms of mental health; and (b) mental health problems can be as severe, as life-limiting and, as life-threatening as physical health problems.

I’m just going to back up my first statement with a bit of good, clinical evidence: in October 2020 (that’s to say: after the first lockdown had ended and before a new one was introduced and everybody had to be quiet again) the results of a research collaboration between psychology departments in Britain, Belgium and Austria psychology were published by Sheffield University. That research project found that people presenting with clinical levels of depression and anxiety tripled at ‘the height’ of lockdown. Those who were most severely affected were (unsurprisingly) women, young people, and those on low incomes or unemployed. (‘The economy,’ incidentally, is not the inanimate abstract it sounds like: destroying the economy means people not having enough (or the right) food to eat; not having a clean, safe place to live; or not being able to afford to heat their homes – all of which would seem to me to jeopardise physical health and lives. Of course, destroying the economy only jeopardises the lives of the poor, so a middle class psychologist can’t perhaps be expected to have the imagination to figure out what ‘the economy’ looks like in human terms.)

In any case, back to the research: in case you should try to attribute that immense escalation in mental health problems during lockdown to the impact of Covid-19 itself (health anxieties for self or others, for example; or grief for relatives and loved ones lost to the virus) let me just quote some more relevant figures: on 24th March 2020 (the day after the first lockdown announcement), 38% of respondents to a survey reported significant levels of depression and 36% significant anxiety. The day before the lockdown, 16% had reported significant depression and 17% anxiety. I’ll trust you to do the maths and extrapolate that to the UK population as a whole.

Have another statistic: in the second quarter of 2020/21 (that’s July-September), the NHS referred double the number of sufferers of eating disorders for acute treatment (that’s people assessed as being in need of urgent treatment within the week) as it had in the same quarter in 2019 (https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/children-and-young-people-with-an-eating-disorder-waiting-times). While you’re online reading this, why don’t you look up the mortality rate from severe anorexia?

Again, I’m not arguing the pros and cons of lockdown here; I’m making a point about how we choose to calculate the impact of our (personal or political) decisions – the factors we prioritise; the factors we diminish the importance of, and the factors that don’t even enter into our decision-making process. The fact that a psychologist can claim that ‘the economy’ is the only victim of lockdown means either: (i) she hasn’t done her research (which for a news outlet claiming to be authored solely by academic experts is pretty appalling) or (ii) she has chosen to ignore that research because she somehow – despite earning her living in the field of psychology – thinks that mental illness is something you can live with (or be easily cured of, or maybe even be blamed for) whereas a physical illness is serious, incontrovertible, and something you have no control over.

It’s a widely-held prejudice. To check whether you share it, I have a question for you: given the choice, would you prefer to live with a mental illness or a physical illness? (That’s supposing the two could be separated: actually, physical conditions have an impact on emotional and mental functioning; long-term emotional distress weakens the immune system and creates or exacerbates a whole host of physical problems so they’re actually inextricable.) Another question, then: do you think you (or the people you care about) are more in danger of dying (directly or indirectly) from despair; or from a virus?  Bear in mind that for most of you reading this, the first question is more pertinent than the second: statistically, if you’re well enough to read this, your chances of committing suicide (even in lockdown) and your chances of dying of Covid (even in the absence of a lockdown) are extremely slight.

I’ll answer the question for myself with a glimpse into my past. When I was in my early twenties, I caught a virus. The Epstein Barr virus, to be precise. If you are British, you’ll know it as glandular fever. If you’re from the U.S., you’ll probably call it “mono” (short for infectious mononucleosis). It’s a horrible little virus transmitted through saliva, hence its nickname – the kissing disease. The NHS website helpfully advises people who do not want to contract glandular fever to “avoid kissing people”.

Whether because kissing really is the main mode of contagion or for some other reason, glandular fever predominantly affects teenagers and young adults, a demographic that is by and large inclined to be strong and healthy and able to fight off viruses, so it is not (except in some rare cases where it leads to a ruptured spleen) life-threatening. For some lucky people, it lasts a few weeks and passes. In about one in ten cases, however, it develops into a post-viral exhaustion which lasts for months. Very similar to what they call a “long Covid” and cite as evidence of the severity of the illness even in people not deemed to be especially at risk of dying from it.

I was the one in ten, so I went from being someone who got up at six in the morning, wrote for a few hours, did a full day’s work in a stressful job, breaking at lunch to go to an hour and a half professional-level ballet class, then went to a contemporary class, a musical theatre production workshop or another evening activity, returning home in time for bed – to being someone for whom a half hour walk in the park was a struggle.

After glandular fever, I have never again taken a professional level ballet class. Having been professionally published, gaining a first class degree in English and being half-way through writing a book, Oxford University admissions had to chase me for my graduate student application because I couldn’t think clearly enough for long enough to write one essay. (In the end, I managed to dig out something from years before.) Thankfully, unlike a friend of mine who had glandular fever at the same time, I didn’t go on to develop chronic fatigue. However, glandular fever has left me with a tendency to go “post-viral” after any viral illness and I’ve lost countless work days to exhaustion and fatigue.

Depression isn’t caused by kissing, unless we count those rare occasions on which kissing forms part of an experience of sexual abuse or exploitation. For me, it was caused (or triggered at least) by being taken out of my family to a attend specialist music boarding school – a place which provided an unparalleled educational experience, both musical and academic, but where emotional neglect and various types of abuse were rife.

The million dollar question: if you offered me the chance to put the clock back and never kiss anyone (perhaps until I got married) that’s to say: if you offered me the chance to escape glandular fever – an illness that disrupted my life then and whose after-effects are still with me now – I’d say no. It wasn’t as if I was kissing people every day of my life. It’s not like kissing is the only form of contact (sexual or not) which is pleasurable or relationship-sustaining. But I wouldn’t retroactively change the way my life was then. Kissing people (whether it was a kiss on both cheeks as a greeting when I lived in Spain or whether it was a full-blown kiss that was a prelude to something more on a date) was simply part of what made me feel normal. Loved. Socially connected and accepted.

If, on the other hand, you offered me the chance to put the clock back and never go to music school, I’d take it like a shot. I would choose to give up not only my ability to make music, but also the experiences that educated my mind to be what it is. I’d choose to give up the intellectual speed and confidence I enjoy. I’d even choose to give up all those things (the habit of early rising, the discipline, the determination, the sense of rhythm and form) that enable me to be a writer.

Depression is life-threatening. If it doesn’t kill you directly by convincing you to commit suicide, it can always mutate and co-present with something that has physical sequelae – an eating disorder, perhaps; or alcohol or substance abuse. It weakens your immune system (my depression was probably the reason glandular fever affected me relatively badly); it robs you of your motivation to do anything that would count as self-care (like eating properly or taking exercise); for some of us, it results in careers that are stop-start (as we back away from anything that would demand us to be “on form” during the down periods); for others, it means not being able to hold down a job at all.

Wait – why is this all relevant to a blog about education?

We pay a lot of lip service to the idea of educating our children to become morally, socially and emotionally competent adults, but in the end, our schools (when we are lucky enough for them to be open) sit them through hours and hours of Maths lessons, Physics lessons, Geography lessons and English lessons (which have been reduced to discussion of “subject terminology” in Macbeth rather than opening up to a discussion of how Shakespeare might help us explore the ways in which ambition eats us up and destroys us; the way a relationship can be both loving and toxic). Then, in a single period of Learning for Life we tell them (in scientific terms) why alcohol or drugs are bad for us or (in medical terms) what anorexia looks like or (in biological terms) how to use contraception.

You may have stumbled on this blog and thought “vaguely interesting” but still be convinced that the real “education” of gifted and talented children is making sure they can do calculus when they are 11, play Paganini in tune or direct a header into the net more times than their opposite number. Just like the psychologist who, when the chips are down, thinks mental health isn’t even a ‘thing’ to be acknowledged in a discussion of risk to life.

My own parents – tragically – thought if they passed up the amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to receive an elite musical education, I might hold it against them for the rest of my life. Instead, I’ve spent the rest of my life (so far)  trying to come to terms with the fact that they sent me to a school which has left me unable for long periods to bear being in the same room as a piano. For a few exceptional people, emotional agony might translate into fantastic art, or fuel an unstoppable determination to succeed in business, or win at a given sport. But for most of us (yes – even for most extraordinarily talented people) mental, emotional, spiritual and social stability are essential prerequisites for academic, sporting or artistic flourishing. They are not the icing on the cake; they are the essentials. Their lack costs lives.

So if you would hesitate before sending your child to a school whose fabric leaked asbestos because of the long-term health risks; please think twice before sending your child to a school (or programme) which isn’t as assiduous about nurturing their mental and emotional health as it is about nurturing their gifts.

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