Look around. Have we all gone mad? Two psychologists: Prof. Stephen Taylor (author of “The Psychology of Pandemics”) & psychoanalyst Judith Deutsch. From COVID to climate change, people report mental health declining around the world. Will that wreck our hopes for to get out of COVID and protect a future climate?
“It is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes not cancer, but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”
– Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.
STEPHEN TAYLOR: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PANDEMICS
Anti-vaxers, mask protests, conspiracy theories – our guest says: we have seen it all before. But now they are on steroids due to social media, mass media, and strange politics.
As a clinical psychologist, Australian Stephen Taylor specializes in anxiety, OCD, PTSD and related mental health problems. Stephen is a Professor and Clinical Psychologist at Canada’s University of British Columbia. While publishing books and papers, he took an interest in pandemics. When Taylor drew that together for a new book, his publisher rejected it.
But the book “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease” was released in October 2019 – one month before COVID-19 was found in Wuhan China. After his timely book, Taylor is riding a crest of demand for new understanding: how do we all react in a pandemic, and how can we heal?
HUMANS ACT THE SAME WAYS IN PANDEMICS
In his research for “The Psychology of Pandemics” Taylor found previously seen phenomenon unfolded like clockwork. Everything that has happened before is happening in this pandemic – but faster, due to social media and inter-connection. Taylor begins the book with the 1919 pandemic (“the Spanish flu”). They too had a rebellion against wearing masks in American cities. There were conspiracy theories.
Are conspiracy theories spreading faster these days? Believers were isolated in their silos, Taylor says, but their beliefs were amplified by Donald Trump and others, legitimizing and spreading them. But conspiracy theories during pandemics are echoes of the past, he says, going right back to 1919. Some pushed the theory that the “Spanish” flu was really a bioweapon. The 1918 New York Times cited a health authority saying, with no evidence, Spanish flu was spread by Germans landed by U-boats, and going to cinemas to spread it.
Taylor and his colleagues published 6 or 8 papers in 2020, looking at vaccine resistance, how people cope with lockdown, etc. More are coming. In this developing psychology of pandemics people are developing “flu-phobia”. Is this really a Corona phobia ? They found “COVID stress syndrome.” That is a matrix of five drivers like xenophobia, economic fear, and traumatic stress syndromes, all hanging together. It is a new understanding, moving away from a single cause for a fear, or mono-phobia. This new syndrome may be an adjustment disorder as people and society struggle to recover. It is a new frontier of study.
There is also COVID disregard syndrome. People with this syndrome say the disease is exaggerated, they are too robust to get it. They embrace conspiracy theories, disregard social distancing and masks. They are against vaccination and Conservative. Taylor says that if you try to argue with people with this syndrome, they quickly realize that YOU are part of the evil conspiracy too. This mental stance has a built-in protective barrier, as many belief systems do.
DOES “MASS PSYCHOSIS” MEAN ANYTHING?
A YouTube video (see my notes below) – claims society is experiencing a mass psychosis. Does the term “mass psychosis” have meaning in psychology? Taylor says it does not, and psychoanalyst Judith Deutsch agrees.
The basic problem is the medical concept of “psychosis” applies to an individual. There is no proof that the psychological make-up of individuals can spread to others, or that what applies to one human works for large groups or society as a whole. Our guests describe this better in the interviews. However, the idea of “mass psychosis” is very appealing and I discuss possibilities in my show notes below these interviews.
LONG COVID MENTAL EFFECTS
When relating the COVID-19 pandemic to mental health, we also have evidence from studies and hospital records this illness can directly damage the brain, whether by clotting, oxygen shortage or mechanisms unknown.
Large studies in several countries report a fraction of people develop long-term mental problems after having COVID-19, even in less severe cases. There are reports of lower IQ, PTSD, and even early onset dementia – especially for those lucky enough to come off ventilators. CNN host Chris Como put his struggle with post-COVID depression on the air.
Old people remember a generation with many crippled by Polio, including President Franklin Roosevelt, wheel-chair bound by it. Now we have long-COVID. We need plans, training and money to cope with long COVID mental health needs. Expect to hear more about that in years to come.
MOST OF US GET BETTER IN TIME
But Taylor reminds us, that once the mega-stress has been relieved (end of pandemic, hurricane over) – most of the population begins to heal pretty quickly. For most people, long COVID symptoms do resolve in weeks or month later.
Dr. Stephen Taylor, UBC
In the interview, Stephen makes some suggestions on how we can inoculate the population against panic, resistance and conspiracy theories when the next pandemic strikes. (Other will come). These include things like “nudges”. He also says his team are working on a treatment platform to help people over the Net directly.
Taylor adds during some disasters, some people grow as human beings. They grow stronger with more confidence in themselves and their community. One poll found three quarters of uninfected Canadians found some positive things about COVID controls, like spending more time with kids and avoiding the commute.
MOST OF US SUFFER MENTAL HEALTH STRESS DURING THE PANDEMIC
Polls and studies show mental stress has risen significantly during the pandemic, in all countries who measure it. According to a poll done by the American Psychiatric Association: “More than four in ten Americans say they are more anxious than last year.” But like the virus, that anxiety comes in waves, up and down. There can be big differences between a deadly spring and better fall, for example.
There are a few people who enjoy causing suffering in others instead. Stephen Taylor has published a paper about the role of Internet Trolls creating new phobias.
There are patterns in people who refuse to believe COVID-19 is real, or think the pandemic is just a control mechanism, with Bill Gates and George Soros at the wheel. So far at least seven American right-wing radio hosts, all against the vaccine or any public health measures, died of COVID-19. They died in the hospitals they feared and hated. Is there anything we can do to soften public anger when the next pandemic or big flu season hits?
Some experts say we need to manage stress levels in the population. But lying or sugar-coating an ugly truth can lead to mass deaths. Can we reduce pandemic stress and still keep our eyes open?
Keep up with Stephen Taylor at his web site here.
JUDITH DEUTSCH – MASS PSYCHOSIS: PSYCHOANALYTIC VIEW
In Canada, and in other countries, hundreds of people gathered in angry crowds outside hospitals, apparently protesting against medical professionals trying to save lives from COVID-19. Today we are asking: as climate disasters hit home, during a global pandemic, are we witnessing a flowering of mass psychosis?
The idea of mass psychosis seems to explain a lot of what we see. But it could be a handy catch-all for social reactions we don’t understand. Where there is stress and radical disagreement, each side calls the other “crazy”. Is “mass psychosis” a valid medical concept, or just a political hammer to hit the other side?
Judith Deutsch is a hybrid, an American transplanted to Canada. She studied history and literature at UCLA and social work at U.C. Berkeley. Judy was trained in child psychoanalysis, and then adult psychoanalytic training at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute. While treating people in her private practice, Judy advocates for peace, human rights, and socialism. She is a widely published reviewer of books, who last appeared on Radio Ecoshock in February 2019.
Judy teaches us insights from Freudian psychology. Unlike others, Freudians do not see anxiety as harmful in itself. We SHOULD feel anxious when real threats are developing. It is only when anxiety overwhelms the mind that it becomes the problem. If you are feeling stressed and anxious about climate disasters during a pandemic, that is actually healthy Judy suggests – as long as it does not eliminate the other mental states we need. Judy also tells us about the concept of “pathogenic belief”.
we learn from Judy this important insight into alleged group motivations. If ten people are lined up outside a hospital yelling, each may have a completely different motivation, based on the complex development of their unique lives. They may have different demands. It is easy to ascribe generalizations to a group, but they are usually not true, because individuals are never the same. That warns us to be careful about assumptions and general labels applied to any group of people, including those we disagree with.
Follow Judy on Twitter here: @jdeutsch8
PREVIOUS RADIO ECOSHOCK INTERVIEW JUDY DEUTSCH – FEB 2019
(Is it time to panic? That depends…says Toronto clinical psychoanalyst and activist Judith Deutsch in our second interview).
Listen to or download my previous 2019 half hour interview with Judith Deutsch.
WIDESPREAD MENTAL SUFFERING
In a fresh poll, coming in the Lancet, two thirds of young people in 10 countries, including the UK, US, India and Nigeria, did not trust governments to act on climate change. Among thousands of young people surveyed, over half think humanity is doomed. How can we expect good mental health under those circumstances?
I see denial of climate change, and denial of COVID-19 as closely related. This denial often comes from the same people. Is there a psychological description of how that rebellion against science develops?
Studies published this summer from many countries find the majority of people report moderate-to-severe psychological impact from this COVID pandemic. That is reported in China, Spain, Italy, Iran, USA, Turkey, Nepal, Denmark, the UK and Canada. Parents are also deeply worried about the mental well-being of their children according to a study by the American Psychiatric Association.
Record high numbers of Dutch people report mental health problems these days. A whopping one third of Canadians say their mental health is interfering in their jobs and family life. It looks like a wave of mental illness.
I worry there is a kind of feed-back effect here. Tools to suppress contagion of COVID closed off key social ties like family get-togethers, meetings, the arts and sports. Isolated people suffer mentally. It drives them into anger against authority. That can fuel resistance to social action to stave off both the pandemic and climate change. Could mass mental illness prevent us from solving life-threatening challenges? Is that a key stumbing block we missed?
On the other hand, the same institutions who allegedly call for rational action based on science, also endorse corporations and lifestyles that threaten the atmosphere and life as we know it. We are caught in a quagmire where it seems both sides are pathological. It sounds like Gregory Bateson’s classic “double-bind” theory.
The world has been smashed by record-setting climate disasters and re-shaped by a global pandemic. According to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association,
“acute and long-term changes have been shown to elevate hostility and interpersonal and intergroup aggression, and contribute to the loss of social identity and cohesion.”
So climate change creates divisions that inhabit our ability to act on climate change. Is that a mental health feed-back loop?
How can we walk that fine line, figuring out when the big power system is truly trying to help us, with a pandemic, global warming, and other threats – and when those in power are knowingly or unknowingly working against our lives, health, and mental happiness? How is the poor individual supposed to know which is which?
Suppose our times are washed over with waves of contagious insanity. Perhaps this is the biggest barrier to human survival. There are not enough mental health professionals or pills to stop that tide of mental distress. Can a mad society heal itself?
What can our listeners do to help their own mental balance and assist others?
ALEX WRITES: MASS PSYCHOSIS – IS IT REAL?
I began this exploration wonder: are we all mad? Poking about, YouTube offer me this title:
MASS PSYCHOSIS – How an Entire Population Becomes Mentally Ill
The video, with excellent illustrations, is part of a series from two Canadian brothers (they claim) who remain anonymous. They draw on Twentieth Century writing, especially about World War Two and the Holocaust, but demonstrating competency in philosophy and history. The slant is Libertarian and opposed to totalitarian governments. The implication is Western governments are already totalitarian and want to control you. Watch, learn, question, but be careful.
Almost all the comments below this video are from COVID-deniers, anti-vaxers, and supporters of right-wing conspiracies who complain they are victimized by Google/Facebook/etc. silencing disinformation. They think this video from the “Academy of Ideas” slips through that net. Nothing is sweeter than discovering a secret truth with hidden meaning only you know. Who knows how many comments come from real people or robots primed to create divisions in competitive societies?
Psychology and psychiatry agree there is a range of “normal” mental health with a minority of people suffering from mental diseases. But there is a long-standing alternative school saying the masses are deluded and those who object are the sane ones. The British psychiatrist R.D. Laing thought madness was a rational reaction to a world gone mad. French thinker Michel Foucault agreed.
This concept of “mass psychosis” has a mirror quality. Both “sides” think the OTHER people are mad, and use this explanation like a hammer. Anti-vaxers believe the 70 to 80% of people who got the vaccine are deluded slaves, while public health experts see denial of this vaccine (by people who are already vaccinated against other “childhood” diseases) is a form of crowd madness. If nobody can agree who has “mass psychosis” that diminishes the usefulness of the term.
These would-be individualists are correct about some things: the system is killing our future and a lot of life on the planet. Some media outlets try to control your actions and opinions. Others thrive on creating social separation (schismogenesis). The originator of that concept, Gregory Bateson, found mechanisms in original tribal societies that held things together despite tendencies to split into groups, including dominance and submission. Without some kind of unifying force, “modern” society might simply split apart into warring parties. There is no guarantee who wins temporary control, and no guarantee of social sanity.
One of the cool illustrations by Mark W. in the “After-Skool” post on Mass Psychosis, YouTube.
The idea of “mass psychosis” is appealing. We can say those who will not get vaccines, wear masks, reduce carbon, change lifestyles are deluded and crazy. However, as this video shows, there is a long history of academics who describe how individuality is destroyed by society. That countries have abused controls not just in racist ways, but for genocide dressed up as necessary wars. The Vietnam War drove the madness of militarism back into the spotlight, and that vein of mass madness has continued with wars in every decade.
If “mass psychosis” can be pointed at anybody we disagree with, does it mean anything? As the YouTube video reaches out to psychology, particularly the Nazi-friendly Carl Jung, in this radio show I called two psychologists to get their take. Instead of “mass psychosis” I prefer something like “waves of contagious insanity”.
Much has been written about people with certain physical diseases connecting through the Net and social media. Isn’t it likely people with mental diseases may also feel empowered when they encounter others with delusions matching their own? The deluded become a money-making market for products and services targeting them. Criminals will recognize victims to scam. Politicians may tap that sub-group for votes, agents of pressure or counter-demonstrations. This “alternative reality” becomes an eco-system that may grow, crash, or persist for years.
Our society has therapies for individuals but none for the social system itself. The foundation of Western power is built on wars, slavery, colonialism and genocide which are not addressed. Like the Popish declaration of infallibility, society proclaims it can never be insane. So without tools, these things fester and divide for centuries, inhibiting the awareness we need to protect endangered nature and the Planetary systems that provide for our survival, among many other species.
CLIMATE FEAR IS DAMAGING MENTAL HEALTH
The appearance of super storms, fires, droughts and all the signals of disturbance of the natural world is beginning to frighten people. No one is more worried about it than the young people who will inherit this damaged world. A BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) poll found 45% of young people reported their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives. As the BBC reports “Three-quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening.”
“Over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed.”
The poll, taken over 10 countries, will be published in the medical journal Lancet Planetary Health. Again quoting BBC: “The lead author, Caroline Hickman from Bath University, told BBC News: ‘This shows eco-anxiety is not just for environmental destruction alone, but inextricably linked to government inaction on climate change.'” – BBC.
So lack of trust in government, say in COVID measures, also comes from lack of trust due to climate action failures. One reinforces the other. Other polls, including one in Australia, reveals 10 percent of adults are choosing not to have children because they worry the future climate will be damaged. In under-35s, that rises to 20%. Sadly, it is also true humans need to have fewer children to reduce to a population Earth can actually sustain.
MENTAL HEALTH MAY BE THE BARRIER THAT PREVENTS CLIMATE ACTION
The climate modelers, the politicians who signed the 2015 Paris agreement, and the planners of record never considered how a massive breakdown in mental health might cripple efforts to save ourselves from climate disaster, much less a pandemic at the same time. Greens join everyone else in trying to avoid developing mental distress in countries around the world. If we don’t talk about this, and find some solutions, nothing else is going to get solved. Minds crippled by depression, panic, and anger will not find common bonds needed for the big changes we all must face.
The COP in Scotland, like everything else, will discuss science, technology, public policy but not the increasingly damaged psyches in billions of people. That is the wildcard which makes any outlandish policy possible, as we see in states with bans on masks, in refusal of public health, in retrogressive attempts to return to a past of male domination and fantastic beliefs. Society becomes an engine with no steering system, not even a driver. Madness becomes normalized.
Has that developed over the last few decades of computer-assisted living? Has technology displaced our sense of self? Were we going this way anyway, even without the pandemic or obvious climate disasters? History suggests large parts of humanity have always been insane, falling into mass murder time after time. Even short periods of peace were often enforced through brutal religious establishments stripping away free thought and action. But has the disease become worse?
You can dig into that question of social sanity in the 1955 book by Erich Fromm, “The Sane Society”.
How would we know if and when a mental health tipping point is reached? If the whole system caters to madness, would we recognize sanity? According to a report from the American Psychological Association, quote:
“Climate change is likewise having mental health impacts at the community level. Both acute and long-term changes have been shown to elevate hostility and interpersonal and intergroup aggression, and contribute to the loss of social identity and cohesion”
THE MENTAL HEALTH – CLIMATE FEEDBACK LOOP!
So climate change stress may lead to mental health problems which develop as divisions within society – climate change creates the conditions for denial and aggressive resistance to working together to stave off the worst climate. Mental health can act as a feed-back loop where climate change increases climate change through deterioration of individual mental health and social cohesion at the same time.
That’s all I am saying. With all the other programs, plans and money we need to address existential threats like the pandemic and climate change: we need to add a massive boost for mental health care. It doesn’t need to be just pills, psychiatrists or psychologists. As our guest Stephen Taylor pointed out, in the first complete lockdown in China, local TV and media were used to help people trapped in their homes, to encourage mental balance. We can reshape more entertainment and services to be supportive. We can create community and local production, while we top funding death. Start funding life. No matter what tired cynics say, a wave of love and caring is still possible, even during times of crisis.
I’m Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. Thank you for listening, and caring.
The radio program begins with a quote from Australian Catherine Ingram at a TEDX presentation.
“How is it bearable for tender creatures such as ourselves to bear witness to the events of the world”
These lyrics kind of sum up our situation: from “The Future”, performed by the late Leonard Cohen live in London.
Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul