Coronavirus: Isolation will start the clock on a mental health timebomb – Alastair Stewart

Working from home comes at a price, whatever social media says, writes Alastair Stewart

Monday, 23rd March 2020, 6:00 am
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant

To say COVID-19 is wrecking lives and the economy is an understatement. It’s also on the cusp of causing a mental health calamity across the country. For all the japery on social media, there is a dark side that’s going to explode soon enough.

The argument that there’s been a decline in the basic niceties because we’re “glued to our phones” (says every grandparent) is tentative. Still, the myth prevails; we’re all stuck on Netflix or games consoles or Facebook. But like some kind of cyborg, we can’t survive without our organic components, too. And folk are dramatically underestimating this.

A predictable fad has emerged rejoicing the prospect of working from home. Not remote working, or e-meetings, or flexible working – pants mornings and learning juggling. The internet is awash with vignettes of communities dancing and a limitless number of posts about all the fun things to do in the crisis.

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Edinburgh city centre is emptying as people go into isolation (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Save for it being nonsense. Not only do the survival of businesses rest on shifting to a flexible working model, but there’s also a hefty mental health price tag not boasted about under the British blasé.

Am I a Scrooge? Better that than a fool. I’ve had two serious back injuries in the past three years, both leaving me horizontal for a month at a time. By week three of the first instance, I could make it to the end of the apartment corridor. I relished the sound of my wife’s keys turning around six, and no amount of Netflix would put out the cabin fever fire. A walk to the end of the street does not negate the explicit warning to keep social contact to a minimum. You can be as busy as you like, but those four walls eventually close in during the “working” day. Depression is likely, the body suffers from lack of activity and engagement, and there’s a pining for the outside world, your routine, friends you’ve not seen. A mundane bus ride seems exciting.

The long-term damage protracted isolation causes is well documented, to say nothing of the noted effects of excessive computer use, lack of exercise, absence of sunlight and indulgence of a sedentary life. The working from home fad isn’t a long weekend – when we bunker down, we bunker down for months to ride out the storm of war against this virus.

Yes, you can leave the house. It is not the same as relishing that Friday pint to break a routine and unwind. The days become blurred after a time and “switching off” is very, very hard. I find it unlikely we’ll be singing flat block renditions for long.

Computers and phones might be our lifeline, but they’ll be our undoing if we’re not careful. I’ve long said International Men’s Day is a missed opportunity because of the rates of male suicide. Male mental health – and focusing on this from personal experience – still has a stigma attached that’s likely to grow exponentially in the months ahead.

Extremely distressing and wildly unpredictable circumstances coupled with social isolation, are the recipe for an unmitigated health disaster. If we can’t leave our home, if we’re encouraged to stay away from GP practices, there’s a timebomb that will go off, and the price will be catastrophic.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart