Changing our collective mind

In the first months of 2020, the vibrations of the Earth changed. As monitored by a global network of seismologists, the average daily displacement of the surface of the planet – measured in nanometres, or increments of one billionth of a metre – fell around the world, from Nepal to Barcelona to Brussels. In Enshi, in China’s Hubei province, and in New York City, average ground displacement fell to less than one nanometre from pre-pandemic levels of 3.25 nm and 1.75 nm respectively.

Life quarantined, life socially distanced, meant ‘the hum of daily life has quieted’, as National Geographic put it. Trying to curb the spread of the virus, Nature noted, ‘might mean that the planet itself is moving a little less’. That slowed-down quietude did not lead to quieter minds.
The pandemic has disrupted different lives in different ways. Day-to-day experience in Australia is a prime example of this compared with many other countries – 112 days of Melburnian lockdown notwithstanding. Yet there’s a universality to COVID-19, and the idea of such a collective experience manifesting a physical shape or impact at a planetary level is seductive, given the widespread occurrences of anxiety, of uncertainty, of disconnection, of loss of agency, of loneliness, of fear that have rippled around the globe.

On 18 March 2020, the World Health Organization’s report Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak noted that ‘a near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel anxious or distressed’. It concluded: ‘avoid listening to or following rumours that make you feel uncomfortable.’

COVID-19 Mental Health

Later that year, the media’s observations of, and predictions about, the virus’s impacts on mental health collided with the University of Oxford and the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre’s finding that nearly one in five people diagnosed as Covid-positive were impacted by ‘a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression or insomnia’ within the following three months, while people with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis were ‘65 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those without, even accounting for known risk factors such as age, sex, race and underlying physical conditions’. ‘This finding was unexpected and needs investigation,’ Dr Max Taquet from NIHR told The Guardian. ‘In the meantime, having a psychiatric disorder should be added to the list of risk factors for COVID-19.’

By March 2021, PubMed – the free search engine focused on biomedical and life sciences – listed nearly 250 new papers exploring the psychological impacts of COVID-19: the bar chart tracking the explosion in this work shot up from its horizontal X-axis like a skyscraper. This research addressed the pandemic through a wide range of prisms, including loneliness, suicide prevention, air pollution and geriatric mental health, grief, schizophrenia, human–animal interactions and gambling. The first paper exploring ‘Chronic Zoom Syndrome’ appeared in Australasian Psychiatry on 5 October 2020.

All of which was overlaid on the world’s complex and extant map of mental illnesses and wellbeing like so many new clusters of fronts, troughs and weather systems on an already densely packed synoptic chart. The pandemic was, simultaneously, magnifying glass, incubator and accelerator for rapid change in the world’s collective mind.

It’s an understatement to say that the phrases ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ operate as a kind of manageable shorthand for a vast and various range of human experience. The WHO constitution defines mental health as ‘more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities’, a quality ‘fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life’ and ‘an integral and essential component of health’. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition – or DSM-5 – lists nineteen categories of disorders, dysphoria and dysfunctions in its categories of diagnostic criteria and codes, including neurodevelopmental and neurocognitive disorders, depressive disorders, gender dysphoria, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, schizophrenia spectrum and various psychotic disorders.

Please read the remainder of ‘New vibrations‘ at Griffith Review.


Dr Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay is a former literary editor of The Bulletin, and a prize-winning author who has published three novels and four books of narrative non-fiction.

Her work has won several awards, including the 2013 Colin Roderick Prize and the People’s Choice Award in the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize. She has also been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Kibble. In 2014, she edited the anthology Best Australian Science Writing.

She is the editor of Griffith Review.

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