As restrictions ease and children start going back to school, we are also faced with a new level of anxiety about returning to the world we used to know
The week before Sally Campbell sent her year 1 student back to school was a big worry week. The Sydney mother had been trying to manage home schooling her daughter, caring for her four-year-old son and working four days a week as a safety adviser in charge of the Covid-19 plan at a large manufacturing plant – while her husband worked full-time outside the home – and found it entirely impossible.
She took on the advice of her GP and closely monitored news about infection rates and the safety of schools. Eventually, Campbell decided to send her daughter back to school in week one of term two. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” she says. “I pondered and mulled it over for a good couple of weeks.”
And despite being convinced it was the best possible course for her mental health, her daughter’s schooling and her ability to conduct her job, and that the Covid risks were low, she remained anxious. “There was definitely a motherly worry through it all, wondering whether I was doing the wrong or right thing in sending her back.”
Emerging from weeks of strict coronavirus lockdown, itself a cause of serious mental health disruption, the lifting of restrictions brings for many a sense of trepidation and unease. While some are bucking at the gate, waiting to return to life in the new normal, others are experiencing a lingering fear of contagion of the virus about which little is still understood. Others yet are experiencing a sadness about the loss of things gained during lockdown. Questions for many remain: what is safe? Where is the line between precaution and paranoia? And what do I not want to leave behind?
Anxiety across Australia has increased – around twofold, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Coronavirus has caused a mass emotional event, says Roger Patulny, an associate professor of sociology at Wollongong University. This general climate is likely to continue, he says, but he has found that for some people life in lockdown has brought with it fewer pressures. “In particular these are people who live in family situations – partner, kids and the quality of their relationship is reasonably good – and they are actually quite enjoying the lockdown because they are having some of the pressures of modern life reduced.”
For those people, the end of lockdown may bring some reticence about re-entering a more hectic life. “However, if you’re a single person who lives on your own, you can’t wait for it to be over.”
Melissa Norberg, associate professor of clinical psychology and deputy director of the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, agrees that for different people the return to a new normal will have a different emotional implications. She says the return to stricter schedules, alarms, commutes and the need to wear something other than activewear marks a significant change for many people who have been isolating and working from home.
“With time and with practice, you start to get used to things. This has been a heightened period of uncertainty for us, but during the past six weeks or so we have started to get used to that new normal,” she says. “As we go back, the evidence from previous pandemics where there has been a lot of social isolation is that within a month or two, people should start to readjust to that prior normal.”
Australians have been warned to expect more coronavirus cases as restrictions are lifted and we socialise more freely. Norberg urges people to reach out with their worries. “It’s OK to feel uncertain,” she says. “It’s OK to feel a little bit of distress. You will get through this.”
Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, says that isolation and the unravelling economic situation is a far greater threat to mental health than returning to social groups. However, he says, the pandemic has caused a fundamental shift.
“We generally take for granted that we go out in the world and nothing will happen to us, whereas [coronavirus] has been: rush into your homes, don’t talk to anyone, don’t interact with anyone, you might catch something that might kill you. There’s a sort of loss of security in that. It has challenged people’s fundamental optimism about the world.”
But, Hickie says, the treatment for any such anxiety is to return to the world and social interaction as much as guidelines allow. Human beings, he says, are social animals and cope in a crisis by coming together. Our mental health is better when we are at school, work and socially connected. Anxiety leads to avoidance, which in turn heightens the fear, he says.
“The treatment, the cure, is to go out there in the world and discuss with others and get back to your normal life.”
In time, we will return to not just a new normal, but a close approximation of the old normal, says Patulny. Kisses hello and handshakes will re-emerge, he says. “That sort of stuff is a pleasant part of human nature and a longer term part of our culture – it’s just having a rest.”
Meanwhile, Campbell is satisfied that the risks associated with going back to school and work are low. “I have greater anxiety going to Kmart, to be honest.”