Commentary: We can’t go on with pandemic lockdown forever

By Michael J. Hurd

I am a psychotherapist. I don’t prescribe medication. Rather, I talk to people about their emotions, their relationships and (sometimes) their mental disorders. Lately I’ve been asked for my psychological take on COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.

Michael J. Hurd

My answer has been the same from day one: We can’t go on like this forever. We cannot hold our lives hostage to fear. Lockdowns are like prison. Psychologically, prison is not good for anyone, and it’s worse when you haven’t done anything wrong. We’re told it’s for “society,” and that the individual must sacrifice. But a society is only as healthy as its individual members. If a majority becomes mentally disordered, what good are we to ourselves, or anyone else? And who says we cannot live for our own sakes? I thought this was America.

We can’t keep moving the goalposts. We can’t say, “It’s just for a couple of weeks.” Then it’s a couple of months. Then it’s until we have “14 straight days of no new cases,” then it’s 28 days. Then it’s “when we have a vaccine.” When will that be? And what about the next virus? Will we have to stay home for that one too? It’s confusing and deeply unsettling to many. And just as many are becoming very angry.

I was taught that mental health is all about self-determination. In my field, we try to teach people the tools for self-esteem. “Use your own judgment. Risk being wrong. Don’t blindly follow authority. Don’t make life primarily about the avoidance of pain or suffering; make life primarily about the pursuit of positive values – career, family, whatever.” Mental health means serenity. How can anyone feel serene under these conditions?

The numbers speak volumes. Calls to suicide hotlines are up. Domestic violence is on the rise. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. Substance abuse is rising, just ask the local liquor store. What do you think this does for the heroin crisis? To make matters worse, people feel they can’t call a therapist because, “Well, everything is shut down. I can’t do that.” People can’t even go to their AA/NA meetings, other than online. Your television might not tell you all this, but I’m seeing it every day in my office.

As a mental health professional for over 30 years, I practice therapy every single day. I talk to people about depression more than anything. When fighting depression, you look at your choices and a depressed person can’t see his or her choices. The job of therapy is to help a person see choices. But under indefinite lockdown, we have no choices.

Safety matters, of course. But life means a lot of different things. Life doesn’t simply mean the avoidance of death. Life is not only and always about safety. Life means making choices. It means some risk-taking. It means individual judgment. It means a willingness to live in a society where not everyone makes the exact same choices, and where we tolerate differences. Tolerating differences; remember that?

Let’s be brutally honest. The majority of us are well and won’t get sick. The majority of us who get sick from COVID-19 will recover (upwards of 98%, according to the latest numbers). Some will die, and that’s unspeakably horrible. You or I could get it. All of those things are true. We can’t pretend there’s no suffering of those who are ill; but we also can’t pretend there’s no suffering for the majority who are well. Giving up your entire life is a lot to ask. For many, it’s a living death. If you don’t think so, you’re lying – or maybe you’re just scared of being shamed.

Every day some of us put up with being shamed and scolded, yet we did nothing wrong. We have complied with shocking uniformity. Times Square is EMPTY. The streets of Paris are deserted. The media and our officials sanctimoniously declare “It’s the new normal. We might have a summer. We might not. We’ll see. But don’t even think about the fall. And next year? It will be worse.” Wow. Whatever happened to, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself”?

The economy is in a free fall like nothing we’ve ever seen. My years as a therapist have taught me many things, and one of the most important is that the economy matters. Starvation and mental health do not mix. Nor do impoverishment and mental health, not to mention spiritual impoverishment: no socializing, no gathering in the public square, no service industries, no church services, no travel. It’s deeper than money. Production is life: Having something to do; a place to feel needed, useful and necessary – no government handout can replace that in the long term.

Most of our officials don’t seem to understand or perhaps they don’t care. In a way, these officials have no choice but to treat us as cogs in a wheel. They’re trying to take responsibility for millions of people. But that can’t be done and they should never have tried.

The answer? We should be doing more for ourselves, and we must have – nay, demand – the freedom to do so. It is the loss of that very freedom that has depression, suicide, and other disorders on the rise. And I promise you: On our present course, it will get worse and the result could be more deadly than the virus.

I don’t know what will happen with the virus. I don’t think anyone really does. But I do know one thing for sure: We cannot go on like this.

Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW, is a psychotherapist practicing in Bethany Beach.