It’s at times like this that we can really appreciate how many social freedoms we take for granted and enjoy on a daily basis. As we’re urged to remain at home and limit contacts to those that are essential, the Government is appealing to the nation to take individual action to protect the NHS and everyone.
With schools abruptly closing and no clear idea yet of when they will start back, let alone when we will have won the battle against the Coronavirus, there is a danger that individuals, particularly young people and older generations, will become increasingly disengaged from society, their peers and support networks.
In a Ted Talk titled ‘This could be why you’re depressed or anxious’ - https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_this_could_be_why_you_re_depressed_or_anxious?language=en ) Johann Hari recognised the importance of us experiencing the sense of belonging to a tribe, something which we have been disbanding in recent decades as we substitute friends with their far less satisfying virtual reality ‘likes’.
Feeling a sense of connection or ‘relatedness’, to others and the environment in which we live is one of three psychological needs that Deci and Ryan (2000) believe we all have, adults and children included. It is essential to us experiencing a sense of ‘autonomy’ (another psychological need), which isn’t about megalomaniac power but feeling able to be an agent in our own life. Relatedness also lies at the core of ‘competence’, (the third need), as our sense of self-worth is in part a reflection of the societal values within which we exist.
As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe it introduces many challenges and obstacles for those wishing to feel connected. Social distancing can serve to make us inward looking as we instinctively limit our repertoire of communication tools like the glances, body language and touch that make us feel human and alive in order to protect ourselves and others. It can also bring out our worst as the marker symptoms (which are of questionable value given that up to 80% of those who tested positively in the trailblazing Italian town of Vo had no symptoms) may make us judgmental and parochial as we look after our own interests, a vicious cycle played out on supermarket shelves.
Following guidance by limiting our contacts and movements is essential for our physical health but our mental wellbeing also requires that we remain closely connected to each other, whether this be through social media, emails, phone calls, letters or postcards. Turn back the clock ten years, and this lack of physical connection would certainly have created a huge void in our lives, as letters and phone calls would for many be the only threads of connection, but for those of us lucky enough to access social media, an array of platforms offer us some semblance of connectivity with friends and loved ones as well as an opportunity to convert the technophobes among us!
It is by reaching out to others in their time of need that we can pull together and collectively make a difference. And so whilst this current pandemic is undeniably scary and just as Brexit before it has the potential to divide and conquer us, it also presents us with an opportunity to pull together as a community, society and globally to fight the Coronavirus together and come out of this pandemic with a fresh lens on what things in life are really important.
Teenagers, more than most may be feeling a sense of disconnection as they are forced to distance themselves physically from their tribe of peers. And as for those history-making year 11 and 13’s who found out in the space of less than a week that their hopes of post exam celebrations have (temporarily, at least) been dashed, we must give these individuals especial compassion and understanding. In this incredibly uncertain time they will be processing the fact that the very things that they have been working towards, drilled into them as essential for their success and the ‘raison d’etre for their schooling lives, are not now happening, and with that the opportunity to pause, to celebrate and hang out with their tribe has also been sent packing.
In these difficult times it is imperative that we can plot a course through the necessities of staying physically safe and responsible members of our society, whilst also taking good care of our own and others mental health, by building and maintaining connections. As we take pigeon steps towards achieving this aim, I strongly recommend Matt Haig's book Reasons To Stay Alive (2016) – a potential life saver for those struggling with crippling anxiety and the disconnect of depression, as well as an insightful resource for loved ones wanting to provide support and understanding at this challenging time.