When the year 2000 rolled around and no planes were falling from the sky, the future looked bright. UNESCO spoke of a new “culture of peace”. Writer Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history when liberal democracy would defeat autocracy. And the guys from Silicon Valley promised a new era of globally connected communities.
Oh, it doesn’t look that rosy. Barely 22 years into the new century, we have weathered successive waves of adversity – the global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the grievous losses it has caused, and now the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat of war spilling over to other European countries. The old certainties, the feeling that God is in his heaven and that everything is fine with the world is now finally shaken.
We are not ourselves. Even with the restrictions that have defined our lives during the two long Covid years lifted, there is little sense of recovery or lightness, no surge of energy to fulfill all the hopeful promises we made to ourselves during the have done lockdowns.
All the plans we made to live better and make our lives matter. Instead, life seems as tough as ever, overshadowed by the threat of a new strain of Covid, the prospect of high energy bills and a surge in inflation. So we find ourselves doomscrolling, checking the news bulletins or social media feeds for new worrying developments.
All of this takes a psychological toll. A recent survey of counselors and psychotherapists commissioned by IACP, their professional association, found that over 80 percent reported their clients experiencing increasing anxiety and depression, some so desperate that they have thoughts of suicide.
You have trouble sleeping or control an eating disorder. They are experiencing more difficulties in their relationships – with a worrying increase in domestic violence. And – hardly surprising in a deeply troubled world – they experience an existential crisis, so to speak, and question the meaning of their lives.
We are not alone in this. Studies in the US, Canada and UK also show increases in anxiety, depression, social isolation and loneliness. Of those who have fallen victim to Covid-19 and have had to isolate for long periods, almost a third have developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
And that’s just the adults. Children suffered during the Covid pandemic. They had long periods away from school and from their friends. In already troubled families, increased stress made it more difficult for parents to respond to their children’s needs. Two years is a long time in anyone’s life, but for a two-year-old, it’s all they’ve ever known. For an eight-year-old, it’s a quarter of his life.
In normal times, life can be tough. Even when people are doing well, many at any given time feel blocked or frustrated in some area of their lives, or are painfully aware that they are not using their full potential, and feel emotionally drained. But a sizable minority of people, about 20 percent, languish. At best, they feel stranded, empty, lost. At worst, they feel psychologically stressed, have trouble coping with everyday life challenges, and are at significantly higher risk of suffering a depressive episode.
In the normal course of things, when people are going through a bad streak in an important relationship or are having a tough time at work, they occasionally get a breather and bounce back. This even applies to those who suffer from long-term psychological stress.
But coping with successive waves of adversity and the rolling uncertainty of what new crises we may yet face has drained much of our psychological reserves. Because of this, we are dismayed to realize that the kind of minor frustration or setback that wouldn’t normally bother us now sometimes feels like it’s too much to bear. That’s why we unexpectedly find ourselves irritable, sad or tearful, weighed down by the cares of the world, exhausted, exhausted.
So there are many people out there who need professional support or help for themselves or their children – or may need them in the years to come. However, this may prove to be a case of an unstoppable force of need meeting a seemingly immovable object because the mental health services needed are simply not available.
Just a few weeks ago, there was public shock and outrage when a review of South Kerry’s mental health services found that hundreds of children were receiving what it described as “risky” treatment, causing some of them serious harm.
But the reality is that many mental health teams across the country are seriously underfunded and understaffed with just a quarter of the recommended staff. Why? Because the total mental health budget in Ireland is only 5 per cent of the total health budget.
So if you’re looking for help, there’s a very small chance you’ll get the right care in the right place at the right time — especially if you’re between the ages of 15 and 25, if you get caught in a Bermuda triangle of sorts. You will no longer be able to access the Children’s Services while the Adult Services are not configured to meet your particular needs. Yet 75 percent of all mental health problems begin before the age of 25. And that’s why so many distraught parents of young people don’t know who to turn to when one of their older teenage or adult children drops out of school or work, stops seeing their friends, embarks on a dangerous fad diet, or just becomes the biggest to retreat to her bedroom for part of the day.
This is also why psychiatrists are warning that there is an epidemic of undertreatment. We should learn from our experience. When the pandemic first broke out in Ireland, the official response was slow as infection broke through care homes. Now let’s not repeat the mistake when it comes to the epidemic of psychological stress and suffering unfolding right before our eyes.
dr Maureen Gaffney is a clinical psychologist and author of “Flourishing” (Penguin, 2011) and “Your One Wild and Precious Life” (Penguin, 2021) and is a candidate for the current Trinity College Seanad by-election
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/people-in-distress-have-little-hope-of-receiving-the-help-they-desperately-need-41491065.html People in need have little hope of getting the help they desperately need