With good reason there is a growing swell of concern about our mental health and wellbeing. Over a year into the pandemic, with no conclusive outcome in sight, there is a palpable cost to people’s sense of security, coherence and peace of mind. The first rallying response to the steep rise of infection and deaths in April 2020 has been followed for many by exhaustion. The King’s Fund has explored this through the lens of past disasters and produced an illustration of indicative peaks and troughs – a long and winding road.
Already there is debate over the reality of long Covid – reminiscent of disagreements about some other complex conditions. No doubt the debate about this will continue even as its effects become clearer over the course of time. What cannot be disputed is the simple reality that all our lives have changed. This is true all the way from the pocket-check before we leave the house (‘have I got a mask?’) to the relentless addition of zeros to the national debt.
A new broadsheet in the UK is a rare occurrence, but in 1983 The Independent appeared with its own style and ambitions in the news industry. Around that time I was in Preston railway station juggling a bag, coffee and a copy of the new publication. I dropped it and a kindly stranger picked it and suggested that perhaps I wasn’t quite as independent as I thought I imagined.
Independence is a beguiling aspiration. If we could simply have greater control over our lives, choosing to do what we want when we want, then all would be well. Without a doubt there is plenty of this kind of thinking in our world, matched by a marketing machine ready to offer us the perfect solution – almost before we are conscious of our need. With algorithms and artificial intelligence, our anticipation and desires are nudged. The greener grass is just around the corner, if only we can afford the fare.
Life is a hospital ward, and the beds we are put in
are the ones we don’t want to be in.
We’d get better sooner if put over by the window.
Or by the radiator, one could suffer easier there.From The Wrong Beds, by Roger McGough
McGough’s poem includes the line: “The soul could be happier anywhere than where it happens to be. Anywhere but here”. Perhaps more than ever, the pandemic has prompted the thought that we need to be somewhere else – maybe even in another time.
When the flood of sickness subsides there will come a counting of the cost. The 130,000 excess deaths over 12 months; cases of long-COVID, both physiological and psychological; the economic debt; the emerging narrative of what has taken place. There will be a continuing focus on well-being as the bereaved come to celebrate lives and make memorial. The impetus for economic recovery and educational catchup may jar with the needs of people who require a pause and time to digest.
Much of the focus on well-being can feel individual and bespoke. There are countless initiatives to help people manage their emotional life and strengthen resilience. I hope that at the same time sufficient attention will be given to collective well-being and how communities can be guided to increase the mutuality of support to create the ecology in which people can be well.
A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement carries a review of a new book by Frank Tallis, The Art of Living.
In his review Antonio Melechi notes the risk that the self-help and self-improvement culture born out of the pop-psychology of recent decades omits a critical ingredient. Focusing in the manageable and measurable, it has neglected the enduring truth that ‘the self is a social artefact’. As we move beyond this critical phase of the pandemic, there will no doubt be a flourishing of tips and tactics to make us feel better, calmer, more resilient. None of which will deliver the promised goods unless we also live in communities which are life-giving, creative and supportive.
Rather than forever longing to be in a different bed can we find common cause to make it a better ward; a better hospital; a better town? Maybe, when our endeavour is invested in community, we might find that coveting other beds is not quite so appealing. That being well can only truly be found in the well being of others.