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Mental Health Awareness Week: A 'pandemic of kindness', Dr Jeremy Howick

May 19, 2020

As part of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Kellogg Fellow, Senior Research Associate at the Faculty of Philosophy and Director of the Oxford University Empathy Programme, Dr Jeremy Howick, writes about this year’s theme, kindness, and how it can help during the current COVID-19 period of social isolation.

In the 1960s, scientists took baby monkeys from their mothers and kept them separated for periods of several weeks. The baby monkeys screamed, scratched, and sucked on the wires of their cages in search of their mothers’ breasts. They clung to the cage walls and eventually curled up into little balls and stopped moving. Many became ill and at least one died. In some of the experiments the baby monkeys were reunited with their mothers and became happy again. We don’t have all the details of what happened in other experiments, ones in which the babies were not returned to their mother’s care following separation.

Being socially isolated makes us all feel a bit like those baby monkeys screaming for their mothers. The extensive social isolation being imposed in many countries is necessary to control the spread of COVID-19. But it is equally necessary to own up to the mental health problems it is likely causing.

The theme for this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness. Kindness can help (I’ll explain how below), but we’re going to need a hell of a lot of it to overcome the mental health problems wreaked by COVID-19.

  1. Many countries in the world are still in lockdown or have recently been in lockdown. The severe form of lockdown—quarantine—was shown in a recent systematic review of 24 studies to have potentially severe short and lingering negative effects on mental health. It adds to symptoms of post-traumatic stress symptoms, creates confusion, and fosters anger. The study showed that financial loss (or fear of such loss) due to not being able to work when under quarantine made psychological problems worse. This is predictable, based on the hundreds of studies that have shown that social isolation is as bad for our health as smoking — both reduce life expectancy by 5 years.
  2. Unemployment is hitting almost record highs (approaching 15% in the United States and the numbers are set to boom elsewhere). Unemployment is associated with higher depression and anxiety and it even predicts suicide.
  3. Even if COVID-19 goes away completely in a few weeks, a spectre of fear of the next one will loom. This fear can induce what are called ‘nocebo effects’, which is a fancy name for negative health effects of expecting a negative outcome.

What can we do about it?

There’s no simple solution to this fantastic wave of mental health problems that I predict are about to arise in countries that have had extended periods of lockdown. Eventually the underlying reasons for being locked down will have to go away—for example, we discover a safe and effective vaccine or treatment. In the meantime, we might be able to scratch deeply enough at the surface in order to dampen the wave.

  1. Contribute to a ‘pandemic of kindness’. Bad times bring out the best and worst in people, and COVID-19 is no different. There are reports of some crimes and domestic abuse rising. On the positive side, neighbours are helping each other out a lot more. The easiest way to improve your mental health and that of those around you is to do something nice for someone else. Here are some simple things you can do.
  2. Stay connected. The harm of economic disaster can be mitigated by strengthened social relationships and networks. That’s why people in some poor countries like Costa Rica are ranked as happier than people in much richer countries like the United Kingdom and Germany.
  3. Stay informed and contribute to the debate in constructive ways. Don’t fall prey to the nocebo effect (the effect of being irrationally fearful).


If you would like to read more of Jeremy’s work, please visit his website or subscribe to his newsletter. Jeremy also has several articles published in The Conversation.

Jeremy Howick is not a medical doctor, so this information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor.