The irony of isolation is that in my personal sadness I am not alone

Van Badham
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Dmytro Betsenko/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Dmytro Betsenko/Alamy

Even when there’s not a deadly pandemic gobbling the world, life with depression is grim.

Grey is the colour that best describes this particular mental illness – one that’s swallowed and spat me out again with a circular hunger since childhood.

Sometimes, depressive episode triggers are obvious – a disappointment or a missed opportunity, an involuntary separation, a death. But alas, the cloud of grey sadness can absorb the mind even on the sunniest days.

These last six long coronavirus months have delivered every one of these provocations to despair. The greyness has been feasting on me.

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Winter’s been cold here in Victoria. The state’s grappling to suppress a spike of Covid-19 transmissions, and the overcast skies are a tonal match for the isolation and inertia of staying indoors. Days have become a progression of not socialising, indistinguishable Zoom meetings to plan hypothetical, post-virus events and doomscrolling through internet feeds that have replaced what we once knew as society.

My present symptoms are lethargy, insomnia, inattention and dejection. The bleak irony of this isolation is a strange knowledge that in my personal sadness, I am not alone.

The comedian Daniel Kitson once explained happiness as a state of both enjoying what you’re doing and having something lined up to look forward to. Predisposed to clinical depression or not, who wouldn’t sink into the cold pool of “low mood” when the world now extends barely as far as the front door and the first casualty of any lockdown is a calendar?

It’s something of a de-isolating comfort to learn that the dark, heavy, chaotic dreams that bedevil me when I – finally – get to sleep are a shared social phenomenon of the era. I confessed to my therapist recently that my productivity has also been smashed by a tendency for my mind to wander into painful, shameful memories, and stay there. I’m not so much remembering careless teenage fights with my now-dead, unrecoverable Dad – or drunken embarrassments at long-ago parties, or vulgar and ugly bad dates – as I’m reliving them. This too, she assured me, is also a common response. Shame, guilt and embarrassment are easier emotions to process than grief, because – amidst a social chaos that is ranging from job loss to bereavement – they give individuals a sense of control.

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The dawning reality is that the virus itself isn’t the only contagion of Covid-19. In its wake, mental illness is too. But if there’s one consolation of this terrible time, it’s an evolving social and political consensus that the discussion of mental illness – whether it’s situational or a major disorder – demands public treatment with seriousness, not silence and inaction. Not shame.

To see a public healthcare response to coronavirus in which mental health services have been explicitly promoted, I’m taking as a complementary treatment in itself. It’s not an understatement to say that extending telehealth provisions to psychological support have been – literally – a lifeline for chemical sad-sacks like me. Between 1% and 7% of people with depression are thought to die from suicide; the extension of mental healthcare plans covered by precious Medicare will save lives. The Victorian government has fast-tracked recommendations from the royal commission into mental healthcare with a $60m investment in practical support, from more staff to more beds.

No one’s complaining, though there is always more that could be done. But is this greater focus the result of years of careful organisational campaigning to de-stigmatise mental illness? Is it a new openness of sufferers to speak out about what it means to be unwell? One of the surprises from the onset of coronavirus lockdown for me was just how many of my friends have gently checked in, to see how I am doing.

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According to Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Richard Wise we’re not merely gaining empathy from collective endurance of coronavirus isolation, although we’re certainly absorbing that the “grand-scale deprivation … of interpersonal connection, of community, of closeness, of financial security, and a sense of safety” is a massive, shared psycho-sociological event both for ourselves and those we love. The socialisation of despair contradicts “reductionistic, biologically-driven explanations” of mental ill-health understood as an individual problem and “challenges the sense of internal defectiveness that lies behind stigmatisation – that having a mental health problem means there’s something crucially wrong with you, and you alone,” says Wise.

There is no universal remedy for mental ill-health. What misfires in the complex intersections of psychological, biological, genetic and environmental forces on the mind can’t be instantly repaired with one kindness, a magic pill or single therapy.

So I’m only confident to speak for myself when I say that in these days of coronavirus isolation, a discernible public thoughtfulness towards mental health provision really helps me. It wears down the sharp edge of isolation. It makes this long, sad mood less grey.

  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.