Will living through the coronavirus pandemic give young people a psychological boost? Experts say experience could strengthen mental fortitude and ease anxieties
- Experiences gained from crisis may, in time, give many a psychological boost
- Studies show the effect may be so powerful that it can improve our relationships
- Clinical psychologist David Murphy said we can ‘grow’ in such challenging times
- American academic Professor Martin Seligman says staying optimistic is key
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
The bad news seems to come from all directions at the moment.
If the pandemic itself wasn’t worrying enough, the UK’s economy has ground to a halt in the lockdown with millions of people’s livelihoods at stake – and one world leader seeming to suggest we inject ourselves with disinfectant.
The outlook appears bleak, so it came as no surprise to read experts, writing in medical journal The Lancet last week, warning of the ‘profound’ toll this could all be having on the nation’s mental health, both in the immediate and long-term.
Young people may be particularly affected. A recent survey by charity Young Minds found that eight in ten under-25s, who had recently accessed mental health support, said the pandemic had made their conditions worse.
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And, as Ministers have stressed, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Social-distancing measures could be in place for much of the rest of the year.
There is no doubt we are living through extraordinary, challenging times and, with no finish line in sight, it’s easy to feel downbeat.
But as counter-intuitive as it sounds, experts say this crisis – or rather, the experiences gained, and lessons learned during it – might in time give many of us a psychological boost.
Studies show the effect may be so powerful that it can improve our relationships, strengthen our mental fortitude and actually ease many of the anxieties we feel about modern life.
Evidence points to unexpected upsides to tragedy and turmoil – and there is some truth in the old saying: ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’
David Murphy, president of the British Psychological Society and a clinical psychologist for around 30 years, says: ‘I do believe that it’s possible to “grow”, even in challenging times like the current pandemic.
‘My first job was working with people with spinal cord injuries. Most of the patients I worked with had been fit and healthy and suddenly their lives were turned upside down by an accident that left them paralysed for life.
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‘Many experienced depression and hopelessness. Often this improved as time went on. Sometimes it didn’t. But I was inspired by the fact that many patients also discovered strengths in themselves that even they didn’t know they had.’
In fact, in the world of psychology, there is an unusual phenomenon where some victims of physical tragedy become more resilient, have greater self-confidence and look to take on new challenges in life – not shy away from them.
It’s called post-traumatic growth.
But can large populations reap the same kind of benefits from the sort of terrifying crisis we are living through now? The scientific evidence suggests they can.
In 2011, a huge earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. More than 180 people died and thousands of homes were destroyed.
But a study of almost 100 residents, published in the Australasian Journal Of Disaster And Trauma Studies, found many felt stronger as a result of their experience.
They reported improved relationships, a greater appreciation of life and a renewed sense of community – having all lived through the trauma together.
Staying optimistic is key, says American academic Professor Martin Seligman, as is building strong relationships with others and focusing on our strengths (file photo)
And research examining the effect of the 2003 SARS outbreak on people in Hong Kong – one of the areas most badly affected by that pandemic – found similar positive effects on mental health.
More than 60 per cent of respondents said they cared more about family members’ feelings in the aftermath and more than a third found friends and family were more supportive, according to a study published in the Journal of Infection. So could the Covid-19 pandemic make us more resilient?
‘It’s certainly possible,’ says Murphy. ‘And it’s likely that some people will find a new sense of self-belief – after surviving, or perhaps even thriving, in the face of all this uncertainty.’
This may be particularly true for younger people – often unfairly referred to as the ‘snowflake generation’. It’s true that younger people are more likely to have mental health problems than older people, who – some studies suggest – are generally more resilient.
One theory – albeit a controversial one – for this apparent fragility is that younger generations are overprotected from the harsh realities of life, have a lot of support from their families and, in some cases, haven’t had to face any real adversity.
Now, with restrictions on freedoms and social lives, could more people discover the resilience that helped previous generations through poverty, world wars and strike-induced power blackouts?
Professor Martin Seligman – an American academic known as the father of positive psychology – believes we can all learn to cope better with crisis.
Staying optimistic is key, he says, as is building strong relationships with others and focusing on our strengths, not weaknesses. He suggests doing simple exercises – such as writing down three things that happen every day that you are grateful for – to help with this.
Experts say this crisis – or rather, the experiences gained, and lessons learned during it – might in time give many of us a psychological boost (file photo)
Of course, it is vital not to forget the people who are facing real adversity at the moment.
From the many living in inadequate housing, to those who are juggling their job with caring for a loved one, or trying to cope with mental health problems and domestic violence. And it is very easy, from a position of relative comfort, to skim over this, to get a bit emotionally carried away by the ‘British bulldog’ spirit.
‘I think it’s important to recognise that we are not all in this together,’ says Murphy.
‘The realities of the current situation are very different depending on our own circumstances.
‘However, we are all affected by this crisis in some way. And – for all of us – regardless of our current challenges, there is possibility that we may emerge stronger and more resilient when this is finally over.
‘We may be able to re-evaluate priorities, appreciate the things that are really important in life and the true value of human connection.’
Most of us – given the choice – would swap this strange world we are living in for our former lives.
But we don’t have that choice.
And while the positives which may come out of this crisis can never make up for all the suffering and hardship, perhaps we can take some comfort in these glimmers of hope.
What to read, watch and do
Languages Of Loss: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Through Grief
After becoming widowed at the age of 49, Sasha Bates shares both her personal and professional experiences to try to help others also grappling with grief.
£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton
Life And Birth
Go behind the scenes at three of Birmingham’s busiest maternity hospitals in this new documentary series following staff and excited (and nervous) parents-to-be.
Tuesday 8pm, BBC One
Explore nature… from your living room
Covid-19 may have put a halt to travel plans – but you can still see the world virtually. While away the hours watching live wildlife camera streams of everything from African watering holes to the breathtaking Northern Lights.
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