Lessons From the Pandemic: The Next Two or Three Months

As a psychiatrist, I’ve noted a pattern over the last couple of weeks with clients (and also friends). While everyone seemed to be doing remarkably well over the early weeks of the pandemic, now I am beginning to see despondency and depression. This should not be a surprise. We humans tend to respond with strength in the face of emergencies. We tend to do less well when challenges become more drawn out as is the case today. We face ongoing anxiety and uncertainty, and depending on our circumstances, either burnout from being on the front lines or boredom and loneliness from self-isolation. Either situation is a ready formula for depression. 

I’ve included here some reflections from my role as futurist and cultural psychiatrist that might prove helpful in getting through this next phase in a healthy way. They don’t provide an antidote to depression, but they do offer perspective for what is being asked of us. 

The short version: We will do best if we can acknowledge that our current situation will likely go on for quite a while. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. We also need to accept that significant uncertainty will remain a part of it. Many of the most important answers can only come over time. And we need to avoid falling for easy-answer responses that in the long run will only make matters worse. Like it our not, the months ahead will require of us immense patience and a degree of maturity and level headedness that we may not be used to.

We will find our capacity for maturity and level headedness particularly tested as we begin to open our doors and return to some semblance of normality. There is no simple formula for how to do it. And certainly there is no ultimately safe way to do so. Inevitably we will all feel pain as people continue to die from the virus and businesses fail to make what will often be very difficult, perhaps impossible, transitions. The key to meeting the challenge will be bringing mature perspective to what is being asked. Even with the best of testing and contact tracking, it will likely be a bit like playing whack-a-mole as we get containment in some places only to see new outbreaks in others. Different places in the world will come at it differently and at different paces. We need to be able to engage it as an experiment, realizing that there is no way to know ahead of time just what will work best. We aren’t accustomed to this kind of experimental, risk assessment–based approach. But that is what is needed. We need to take our best shot at guessing what might work, then be as intelligent as we can in evaluating the evidence and making further decisions accordingly. 

A key in all of this will be avoiding responses that only increase our likeliness of feeling overwhelmed while providing no real information or benefit. In my most recent book Rethinking How We Think, I describe how it is our tendency when things get too much to polarize and run to favorite simple-answer beliefs. I also describe how this kind of response, while it has often served us in times past (it can reduce our experience of uncertainty and complexity), will work less and less often going forward. Without question, this is the case with the pandemic and what it will ask of us in the months ahead. If we are not to fall into depression, we must avoid reactive responses in ourselves. We must also avoid having our attention distracted by the reactive responses of others and by actions that exploit our uncertainties. 

In particular, we need to shield ourselves from such responses in the political sphere and in the media. Early on, political figures—with a few marked exceptions—also did pretty well. For similar reasons, leaders tend to respond admirably in the face of crisis. But I could imagine this being less the case in the months ahead. Polarized responses stand ready on both the Right and the Left. On the Right, people will be vulnerable to pushing too quickly into getting businesses up and running—with major new outbreaks a potential result. On the Left, people will be vulnerable to making the desire to keep everyone safe from disease its own kind of ideological purity—again only putting people further at risk in the process. Avoiding either kind of polarized response will be essential to good policy. It will also be essential because we have enough to deal with with the virus and all it asks of us. Having to deal with partisan polarizing becomes a distraction that we really can’t afford.  

How the media responds, and we respond to it, will also be important. The media similarly did pretty well early on. It was clearly an emergency, and there was plenty of real information that people needed. Over the months ahead the amount of news that will really be news—anything that is new and actually informs us—is like to be pretty small. There will be important information to keep up on: what we are learning about virulence and immunity; progress that is being made with testing, treatments, and vaccines; how the “experiments” with different approaches to reopening are proceeding. But beyond these things, there will likely not be a lot to report. The media tend not to be at their best when what is called for is patience and perspective. When they run out of good front-page-news content, they start looking for drama. Similarly, we really don’t have the luxury of having our already taxed emotional bandwidth highjacked by clickbait and drama. 

For our mental health, we need to keep in mind that we are in this for the long haul. We also need to accept that much will remain uncertain for many months into the future. And, yes, like it or not, it will be whack-a-mole, and this with many more variables than we can count and all of it a moving target. Our task will be to keep the “moles” as small and infrequent as possible so that our health care systems don’t get overwhelmed and so that we have time to develop treatments and vaccines. But that doesn’t mean that outbreaks will not appear—indeed if we are doing the experiments in the ways that will save the most lives in the long term, they certainly will. Our task is to learn as much as we can from when they do. It is also to not tolerate behaviors that only make overwhelming circumstance more difficult. We must stay vigilant in calling out claims that might appear to protect us from real uncertainties and shun distractions that become attractive because they shield us from our fears. 

This degree of maturity and level headedness asks a lot of us. But if we can bring it to bear, what is needed going forward, while unquestionably a challenge, becomes pretty straightforward. We should be able as individuals to avoid overwhelm and despair. And together, we should find the resilience needed ultimately to thrive. We should also learn a lot in the process, and a lot that will serve us going forward. It is a kind of maturity that we as a species will likely need with growing frequency in the decades and centuries ahead.