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Freedom Day

lt’s Freedom Day…just another Listless Day

Mental Health

Measures are lifting but cases are rising and hope for the future seems absurd. Within this, a general listlessness has us in its grip, and only we can save ourselves from it...

Boris Johnson has a flare up his bum, filling the air with red, white and blue smoke, but when it clears, no-one is there. Freedom Day means little in this Land of Listlessness.

Now deep into the second year of Covid what we’re facing is not merely mass illness, tempered as it may be by the vaccines, but also a profound illness of the spirit. As psychic evils that can take you down, listlessness is up there with obsession or cruelty or narcissism, and it is one that few have escaped in these times. Linked to depression, it is cultivated in stasis, where nothing changes for a long time and hope of it ever changing begins to ebb away. A kind of limp acceptance takes hold in which you are propped up by your daily habits: the familiar path through the house, the same walk to the park, the same conversations on Zoom, the same social media accounts checked, the same work emails read. It all goes round and round in a slackening loop, making waking life more akin to a dream state. Somehow you feel constantly busy yet unable to get another done. You feel like you desperately need a break even though you seemingly aren’t doing that much at all.

Alcohol is the perfect accompaniment to such feelings, that old friend, the Great Number. If you can just get through to 5pm then you can get started on it, and fall into that comforting fuzzy embrace where everything is alright again. You keep on drinking and grow sentimental over being at home, spending more time with the kids even as they note the change in your slurring voice, and as time goes on you drift further from reality, fantasising about meeting up with friends for big parties, heading away on holiday to beautiful places that aren’t in your house, imagining great futures without making the effort to actually bring them about.

Drink props you up, so does food. Comfort food to indulge in. No longer is Saturday night your treat night, it’s every night, it’s every five minutes as the grazing around the house is used to fill a vacant minute.

Drink and food prop you up and so does the TV that you drink in front of. New narratives to passively absorb in search of the occasional stimulating moment which makes it all worthwhile. No joy in this series? No bother, there’s an infinite number of others to try, to keep you rooted to the couch for years.

The social media that you read while you watch TV and drink your drink is another prop. The one that keeps you from being lonely because you are in constant touch with people on your screen. You may not know them personally but you know their movements, their thoughts, their failures, their changes of hairstyle, their politics, their plans for decoration, and what they look like in their underwear. Your life is crammed with such people, many of whom you don’t even like, including a few of who you actively hate and merely follow in hope they have a humiliating comeuppance, but some part of your brain, because you know everything about them, is fooled into thinking you have a busy social life. When actually, it’s days, weeks, months since you last saw your ‘real’ friends. Well, you see them on social too, so that’s enough isn’t it?

Except it’s not enough. None of this is enough. This listlessness you have fallen into is dangerous. Right now, it almost feels like a terminal state. This Listless You is the New You, even the True You. The you that’s left once you stopped trying.

What the statistics are saying

All the research about the mental health effects of the pandemic points to a variety of ill effects linked to this slump into depression and anxiety.

One in four young people in the UK are worried poor mental health will affect their ability to find work after the pandemic, according to the Resolution Foundation in research conducted with YouGov. Only 48% of 18-24 year olds rated their mental health as good.

Chinese researchers found a link during lockdown between over-eating and lockdowns with attendant increased social media exposure. According to a report in the International Association of Applied Psychology, “48% of respondents showed moderate to constant emotional overeating, and respondents desire for high-calorie food significantly increased. Correlation analysis showed that emotional overeating is positively associated with social media exposure, neuroticism and anxiety.”

In the UK mental health minister Nadine Dorries told a select committee that there had been a 22%increase in demand in eating disorder referrals, citing particularly young women were instead starving themselves as they were again overwhelmed by social media exposure, and children as young as five “throwing the contents of their lunchbox in the bin.”

Generally, it seems all our habits are turning negative. Doomscrolling was one of the Oxford dictionary’s words of the year in 2020, referring to people compulsively scrolling through social media for material that is depressing or alarming. According to the World Economic Forum, the pandemic has resulted in people now spending an average of 4.2 hours a day on their smartphones, and suggested a link between mental health problems increasing and “unlimited access to information on societal factors driving stress and anxiety.”

And in a new survey published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 5 Australians are reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress. Damningly, people had become more pessimistic. One in four people believed Australia would take more than a year to return to normal, compared to one in seven people in November 2020. 16% of people thought life will never return to normal.

So what next?

None of this is to side with the anti-lockdown brigade, to say that we should just head straight back to pre-pandemic life regardless of anything else. Restrictions have been necessary, and surely continue to be necessary – it has been the confusing nature and the management of the restrictions which has been often unnecessary. Fundamentally, the listlessness we are all experiencing is the result of a lack of trust that things will get better. The situations themselves have created mental health problems, but the lack of reassurance that we will be adequately managed out of the crisis is what has drained us of energy.

It is undeniably a consequence of government actions, the mix of self-congratulation and rank ineptitude, which sees even Boris’ own trumpeting of Freedom Day turn to a mouthful of ashes when it actually comes about. We look for instruction and assistance from above, but when you see the lies, infighting and often sheer stupidity, then what hope do you find in their words? You can’t believe them. No-one is going to help. The challenge of our time now, then, is to save ourselves.

This listlessness cannot hold. We all have to break through it or lose our lives even if we stay alive. The sickly comforts of homebound lifestyles and digital fantasies are a depression greenhouse. Nobody is going to save us from this but ourselves.

Kicking the habits of lockdown require a detox as challenging as any other addiction. And as with any other addiction there are a few fundamental measures you can take. Connection with other people: in person, to talk. Physical health: getting out in the air to exercise, ideally with others. Finding new purpose: be that a new work projects or a new challenge you haven’t undertaken before. One day at a time approach to detox: limiting your screen time, strictly, and including full days off. Reflection: on who you are and what you want.

The slump has to come to an end, we need renewed vigour. Basing it on these fundamentals of beating addiction means more depth to this approach but, really, it’s up to each of us to decide what will work for us to drag ourselves out of the psychic mire. And this is why this listlessness also carries with it an exciting possibility, to slingshot ourselves from the dark side of the moon back down to earth. That in itself implies a sudden and glorious launch back to life. Staying safe, behaving responsibility does not mean living with inhibitions, rather it should be the bedrock for taking this moment to reinvent ourselves – we are our own salvation.

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