The Mental-Health Crises of the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Douglas Watson, New Yorker, April 17, 2020
Counsellors at a text-based hotline have seen a dramatic increase in fear and anxiety, but also in the number of people volunteering to help.
There was an afternoon in early March when I couldn’t stop thinking about the first line of Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America”: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.” As I scoured the Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods for hand sanitizer—which I eventually found, thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, at a local smoke shop—I imagined Roth’s words as a magical lifeline to a safe future, from which I could calmly gaze back at this desperate time. Our city was not, like that of Roth’s narrator, under threat from an authoritarian President—not exactly, anyway—but, as the coronavirus descended, the anxiety was palpable. For our part, my wife and I were worried about our toddler son’s asthma, and about how our daughter, whose kindergarten year was about to be upended, would one day remember this unsettling season.
Fear, a perpetual fear, is something the entire world is experiencing these days. “We were kind of built for this moment,” Nancy Lublin, the founder and C.E.O. of Crisis Text Line, tells The New Yorker, in the video above. C.T.L. is a national, 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that operates exclusively by text message, and it has been assisting Americans, especially teen-agers, with mental-health issues, abuse, and other crises since 2013. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the organization’s counsellors have noticed some striking trends. Seventy-eight per cent of people contacting C.T.L. are experiencing anxiety, more than double the rate from before the pandemic. Moreover, as Bob Filbin, C.T.L.’s co-founder and chief data scientist, notes, the increase in anxiety has been accompanied by a change in the way people talk, or text, about it. “The language that they’re using,” he says, “includes words like ‘fear,’ ‘panic,’ ‘frantic’—intense words of anxiety stemming from coronavirus, and more intense than we’ve seen in the past.”
Lublin, who, like Filbin, was interviewed remotely for this video, made by Sara Joe Wolansky, a former crisis counsellor with C.T.L., says that there have been two distinct “waves” of covid-19 texters. First came those who were getting in touch to talk about the anxiety they felt as the pandemic took hold of their cities or regions; that wave is still happening. The second, she says, is made up of people who have been thrown more directly into crisis by either the virus—those stricken with grief after a loss, or worried about their own symptoms—or the quarantine. Millions of people are essentially trapped at home, Lublin says, and, unfortunately, home is not universally a nice place to be. The Times reported on April 6th that a worldwide increase in domestic abuse appears to be an indirect result of coronavirus lockdowns, a trend that lines up with Crisis Text Line’s findings.
“The pain,” Lublin says, “is magnified in the most marginalized people.” Strikingly, right now more than half of “our texters,” as she calls them, identify as L.G.B.T.Q., and almost a third report a household income of less than twenty thousand dollars. The percentage who identify as Asian has approximately doubled; many of these texters report harassment and bullying. “People are being particularly cruel about the origin of covid-19,” Lublin says, while noting that the number of self-identified Asians volunteering to be crisis counsellors has also shot up.
What should you do if you are experiencing a moment of crisis? Send a text to 741741, from anywhere in the U.S., and a trained crisis counsellor will respond, usually within five minutes. Counsellors offer coping strategies designed on the basis of what has been learned from the more than hundred and fifty million messages C.T.L. has exchanged with people seeking help. One of the most important things a counsellor can do, Filbin says, is to normalize pain by letting people in crisis know that “it’s normal to feel freaked out right now.” That is true in any season of any year, not just when we happen to be living through a quasi-Biblical plague. As C.T.L.’s Web site puts it, the group’s counsellors aim to help those in crisis “move from a hot moment to a cool moment”—from the clutches of fear to a memory of it.