After 18 months, psychologist Chris Cheers has begun to understand emotional responses to the global Covid pandemic as something of a pain.
It is a collective pain, experienced by everyone at the same time, but also deeply personal: our losses are not the same, just as our experiences have not been the same.
Some have lost loved ones, from Covid and in other ways, and have been unable to attend funerals. Some have experienced a loss of health through prolonged Covid, or a prolonged loss of income or job loss. The impact of both the virus and the restrictions has been disproportionate, affecting underserved communities more than others.
It’s a “complex and rather ambiguous loss,” Cheers says, making it difficult to process.
“When losses are so ambiguous and complex, it’s really hard to get to that place of acceptance, so we get stuck. Trapped in pain and trapped in heartbreak. “
The usual support networks that support us in pain are also gone. In states that have locks in place, we are not allowed to meet and seek comfort from one another. And even when we can reach out, those who could usually offer support are suffering their own losses.
“People’s ability to support each other I think is starting to decline,” Cheers says.
When Australia was first shut down in March 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that the pandemic could last for six months. He was wrong. The pandemic continues and the mental and physical effects of living under it have accumulated.
“In terms of the impact of the blockade on mental health and the brain, this doesn’t get easier, it gets harder,” says Cheers. “The impacts of stress and the impacts of all the losses that lock-ups bring are cumulative. That cumulative stress drives people away from hope. “
During Melbourne’s 112-day shutdown last year, there was a collective sense of purpose that provided some meaning behind the restrictions: We were shutting down to save older people, to save our community. We were closing one last time.
Data from the Medicare Benefits Program shows an increase in demand for services during Melbourne’s second wave of lockdown last year, which was not matched in other states.
This year, with the Delta variant competing against the vaccine launch and winning, that sense of purpose has fractured to be replaced by “a sense of frustration and anger,” says Cheers.
“When that doesn’t change, it goes to that hopelessness or apathy, which I now see more in many clients,” he says.
Your waiting list has never been so long. The decision to double the number of Medicare-subsidized psychology appointments from five to ten was good news for clients, but the number of psychologists has not changed.
Even with a Medicare rebate, those who hire a private psychologist should be able to pay the gap. Doubling the number of sessions does not make it more accessible.
The shift to telehealth has also required rapid reconversion. Cheers has been doing one-on-one zoom therapy in her spare room in Melbourne for the past 18 months, replacing years of practice in reading body language with a new ability to make eye contact through a webcam.
“If you make eye contact with someone in a video, it doesn’t feel like eye contact because you’re looking at them on the screen, not on the camera,” he says. “To make eye contact I have to reconcile with the camera. So I feel like I’m doing green light therapy right now. “
And psychologists are also living in a pandemic, going through the same blocks and restrictions as their clients. It gives them “a path to understanding and empathy,” Cheers says, but it has also squeezed them.
“I think many psychologists would join me in telling me that right now we are exhausted, but that we are all incredibly necessary,” he says. “Our waiting lists are long, our clients are in need. And that’s a very challenging place to be, knowing that you need so much support that you can offer, while your capacity for support is depleted. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism