Coronavirus: The pandemic's impact on emotional health - opinion

While circumstances were exacerbated by the coronavirus, there is more to the picture.

PASSERSBY WALK by signs whose names have been changed to those of women killed in domestic violence in Jerusalem, in November 2020 to mark the Day For Elimination Of Violence Against Women. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PASSERSBY WALK by signs whose names have been changed to those of women killed in domestic violence in Jerusalem, in November 2020 to mark the Day For Elimination Of Violence Against Women.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 As coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out, ensuring that our physical health is sustained for the foreseeable future, we stand to gain from reflecting on the virus’s impact on our emotional health.
What exactly was the virus’s impact on emotional health? There have been numerous articles and reports highlighting data that discuss the emotional health experience of many people throughout the crisis. However, while their circumstances were exacerbated by the coronavirus, there is more to the picture. 
For example, an article in the Times of Israel during the first lockdown in Israel was titled, “Virus lockdowns may be hiding an outbreak of violence against women, children.” The author’s essential point was that in a nationally mandated lockdown, those experiencing domestic violence were trapped with the people who hurt them regularly. That is a scary piece of information. Factoring in WIZO’s research that showed a 300% increase in domestic violence complaints during the pandemic points to COVID-19 being responsible for a lot of additional pain in the form of physical and emotional abuse. 
But what was the situation for these individuals before the pandemic? The above-mentioned article points out that, prior to COVID-19, the situation was only better because there were more places for the victims of abuse to hide. The real change caused by the virus was that those who were already in unsafe relationships had nowhere to go other than their homes, which were unsafe. With that in mind, the increase in domestic violence complaints means something very different. The abused were in danger before there was a single lockdown; COVID simply intensified something that already existed.
On a similar note, Kav L’Noar’s newest psychotherapy clinic, which opened in the midst of the pandemic, is now serving hundreds of individuals. While the pandemic raised the urgency for emotional healthcare – one of several impetuses necessitating the clinic’s opening – the issues clients had were unrelated to the pandemic itself. Not a single client at the clinic came in for something directly related to the coronavirus. They struggled with their emotional health before the pandemic, too. They just had nowhere to go. The kupot-funded clinic is not a solution to something created by the coronavirus, it’s a solution for emotional health issues that predate the virus.
Both of these scenarios indicate that emotional health issues existed before the coronavirus and were simply unaddressed. But why?
IN A RECENT conversation, Dr. Zev Ganz, clinical director of Kav L’Noar’s Beit Shemesh clinic, shared a striking dichotomy. Anyone in any city in Israel can go to their local kupot cholim, swipe their insurance card, and receive top-notch healthcare services. That is unfortunately not the case with emotional and mental health services. People are not able to easily afford the help they need outside of a handful of locations. The fact that these services are unavailable for most people also sends the message that they aren’t very important. 
Almost nobody would simply avoid a case of strep throat. They would take antibiotics and get better. That’s often not  the case with emotional health. Even in severe situations, people are often unaware of or unable to get the help they need. In that vacuum, alternative ways of dealing come into play. But there are two issues with these coping strategies. 
The first is simple. Why should anyone have to? In 2021, we as a society should invest in and value emotional health services to the point where anyone in our country can swipe their insurance card and receive quality emotional health services.
Emotional health is beneficial for individuals and society. Increased feelings of well-being, greater self-esteem and self-worth allow people to thrive. Research shows that these emotional health markers are associated with decreased at-risk behavior, greater job retention, and lower marital discord. Everyone wants those things.
The second issue is that coping by avoidance doesn’t really work. The coronavirus is a prime example of this. School is not a place for children to hide from physically abusive parents. Women should not have to take shelter from their own homes. People shouldn’t have to figure out how to deal with their emotional health issues amid a vacuum of affordable quality services. Eventually, stress levels increase and the ways we use to cope won’t work anymore. COVID-19 is not the only stressor out there. If we address our issues head-on, we won’t have to deal with them later. No one would recommend that someone take Tylenol for strep-throat indefinitely.
COVID-19 lifted up the rug and showed us what’s underneath: people who need help. But, awareness alone cannot beget change. In the words of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better – it’s not.” Too often emotional health issues are relegated to minor headlines and small talk. As we move out of the pandemic, we stand to gain tremendously from revisiting the way we talk about and subsequently address emotional health in our communities. If we do, the next crisis – whether it be for a community, a family or the entire world – won’t result in these same statistics. Let’s take emotional health as seriously as it deserves to be taken for our own benefit, that of our families, friends and communities
Mordechai Katz, MSW, is a former fellow at the American Psychoanalytic Association and the director of organizational advancement at Kav L’Noar.