Economic Update: Corona and Our Mental Health

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The Corona virus's threat to physical health is clear. Far less well known are the virus's serious impacts on mental health (loneliness, depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety) worsened by the total failure of private and government leaders to anticipate, prepare for, or cope with the pandemic. With Dr. Harriet Fraad we explore the psychological costs of the  pandemic and some ways we can better cope with them.

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This Transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, income – our own, our children – and I'm your host, Richard Wolff. We're coming to you today from special locations that we've had to find, in coping with this virus and all the rules and regulations that have been put into effect. It's working under very difficult conditions, as I know all of you are as well. So please bear with us; we're doing the best we can. And we're determined and, so far, able to bring you regular programming, which we intend to continue. 

Of course, today's program is about the coronavirus, but I promise you it'll be different from what you've been hearing. It will be new. It'll be something we believe is very important to cope with but that hasn't been so far.

And let me introduce it this way: We all live with viruses. They're part of human nature and physical nature around us. They've always been part of human life. It is important to understand that there is nothing new or altogether different about this one. A few years ago, you may remember, we had the SARS crisis, S-A-R-S. That was a virus. We had the MERS crisis, M-E-R-S. That was a virus. Ebola. We've had a lot of them. They come periodically. Many flus that you've had ever since you've been a child were, in fact, viruses. And sometimes they were ferocious. Back in 1918 we had something called "the Spanish flu" – a strange name, since the flu was begun in Kansas, right here in the US of A. Nobody, by the way, called it "the USA flu," or "the USA" anything. Attaching a nationality to a virus is an invention of Donald Trump. 

In any case, any reasonable society, led by a reasonable government, and composed of reasonable health-care producers, would have understood and taken the steps to produce what is needed in a pandemic of this sort, and would have stockpiled. That's right:  the test kits, the ventilators, the beds, the gowns – you name it. It would have taken those steps. It may not be privately profitable for companies that make those things to take those steps, but that's no excuse. We knew we needed them. We knew that this could happen. It has happened in the past. There is no excuse. When the private sector didn't do it, it was because it isn't profitable to produce those things and to stockpile them. Well, then the government could come in. But because it's governed by the same mentality – you know, cost-benefit, profit – they didn't do it either. 

So let me, as an economist, tell you one thing: It is already the case that much, much more wealth has been lost – in the stock market, in the lives we all lead, in the goods and services we're not producing – much more wealth than it would have taken to prepare for this pandemic. To have the beds in place, to have the ventilators in stock, etc., etc. 

But as I promised, this program is different. We're not going to be talking so much about the virus, for sure, and we're not even going to be talking about the economic collapse that has now begun to unfold as a consequence. By the way, not a consequence of the virus, as a consequence of not having prepared for it, not having assembled the means to deal with it, not having trained the personnel. But we're going to approach it by recognizing another dimension, that what this virus threatens – directly by its impact on our bodies, but also indirectly by its impact on a capitalist economic system incapable of preparing for it almost anywhere, but particularly poorly in Europe and North America – we're going to look at another dimension, namely, that it also affects mental health, the way we feel about ourselves, about our work, about our lives, about our children, about our loved ones. 

It has enormous effects. Those, too, should have been foreseen. This is not the first time human beings are quarantined. This is not the first time people are isolated. These are not the first times we have to put space between us. None of this is new. And we also know, as you're about to learn, what some of the psychological and mental-health consequences are. That's our focus today. 

And to do that, I've asked Dr. Harriet Fraad, who many of you know from earlier programs, to join us, because her specialty is dealing with psychology – how political and economic events impact our feelings, our relationships, our deeply personal and intimate life. Quickly, to remind you, Dr. Harriet Fraad is a mental-health counselor and hypnotherapist, with a private practice in New York City. She writes many things in journals and books. You can see her work at her website. Harriet, H-A-R-R-I-E-T.  Fraad, F-R-A-A-D.  harrietfraad.com. Her latest project is a podcast called Capitalism Hits Home. It is a way for her to comment, in an ongoing way, on the intersection of politics, economics, and mental health. I urge you to take a look at it. You can find that podcast – again, Capitalism Hits Home – on iTunes, Google Play, and our website, democracyatwork.info.

WOLFF:  Welcome very much to our program, Dr. Fraad.

FRAAD:  I'm very glad to be here.

WOLFF:  All right, let's jump right into it. The coronavirus is a shock to the American people. People are afraid. People are hunkered down – because the government tells us to – in our homes. We're not supposed to see other people. This is a kind of a traumatic, sudden crashing of our lives that then puts us into a kind of condition I know you have identified as a little bit like children caught up in a world they quite don't understand yet – fearful that at any moment at home, on the playground, something could go wrong – and having to turn to their parents or caretakers for the authority to get through it. How is that being replayed now?

FRAAD:  It's being played because everyone doesn't know what's happening. Our president doesn't know what's happening either, and we're all getting contradictory directives, the way children get in an abusive household, where they're told to do one thing and then they're told to do the other, and they're punished at every turn. Also, children are helpless. They don't know what's going on, and they don't have the vocabulary or the mental apparatus to really inquire about it and say what's going on. And most people here don't either. We have a particular weakness in our country of being unconcerned about mental health. Our president doesn't seem concerned about his own mental health, or anyone else's, and so we're in trouble. People are confined to their homes, and homes are dangerous places to be.

WOLFF:  Well, let me interrupt. Is it – I want to get this point, because I thought the earlier conversation made it very, very clear. There are people who are now saying we have to trust authority. I notice, in the streets, people are turning even to Trump when they've had doubts or notions about it, that somehow we have to turn to authority, the way – I thought that your point was – the way that children kind of count on their parents, no matter how those parents act because who else are they going to depend on?

FRAAD:  There's an enormous amount of research about this. Children who are brought up in authoritarian families, where they're not heard, where nothing is explained, or very little, grow up feeling that authority must be trusted, and they dare not question. Then they go on into authoritarian religions that tell them what's right and wrong, and they dare not question, and to authoritarian schools that do the same thing. Then when they're in a crisis, many people think oh, I better obey. I've been bad. That's why bad things have happened to me. Obey! Obey! And that's a dangerous thing to do. That was the basis of German fascism, and Italian fascism, and Japanese fascism. Those things began to be studied during Hitler's ascendancy and then were followed up later:  that there's about 20 percent of people who will obey authority no matter what. Then there's about 60 percent who could go either way, and another 20 percent that have to question. 

That 60 percent of people is the mass of people, who are in trouble right now. And we have a leader who demands that he knows, that he should be heard, as he knows everything. He knew that this was no threat – he made it that this virus, coronavirus, was no threat – and he made that clear. Then he made it clear that it's a very dangerous thing from China, intimating that an ethnicity is at fault. And then now he's saying, well maybe it's not so bad. People die in car accidents, so what, we still keep driving – back to work! Juice the economy! So there's constant – it's like being with an irrational parent, who you have to obey but they're giving constantly different directives.

WOLFF:  Well, if I understand your notion of the 20 percent who are going to be critical of what's going on and think about it, 20 percent who are terrorized into supporting authority, then is it your point that over the next weeks and months the 60 percent – sort of the big middle – is going to be deciding which of those two directions to take? Whether to go in the direction of blindly following whatever the authority is – which is going to be a problem, since different authorities are giving different directions – versus people being pulled in the other way, to begin to develop a critical understanding of what wasn't done right, A) so we get through this crisis, B) so we don't go through this trauma again.

FRAAD:  Well, one of the things that has happened as it happened in Nazi Germany is there was a huge crisis. It wasn't a virus; it was an inflation, so that people needed to bring wheelbarrows of money to the supermarket to get anything. Our crisis is both financial, but it's also that there is a virus to worry about that could kill us. So people get more insecure. And in those insecure moments, they need to be reached – to question, to think, or to blindly obey. So we're at a moment of crisis. And we look at the different programs; for example, the excellent program of Bernie Sanders that has totally different priorities from that of Donald Trump, with his $500 billion slush fund he wants to give to banks and businesses to do as they feel like with no strings attached, or to create a public health system to create public ways of people getting help of all sorts, to create universal daycare, and all the other things. We have a big crisis of priorities at this time. And what happens to people is they can revert to childhood obedience, which would be very dangerous, or they can begin to question, like adolescents begin to do.

WOLFF:  Yeah, it seems to me that the thrust of what I would like to be doing, particularly on this program, is to cultivate the ability to think about this, to learn the bitter lesson, not to throw yourself on the main authority. The authorities are the very people who didn't manage to anticipate, plan for, or now cope very well with all of this. It's staggering to think that the failure to deal with this situation is now going to become the possible way for people to support the very failed authority.

But we're going to have to hold it for a minute. We've come to the end of the first half of today's program. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It is important that we stay in touch with you, in all the mechanisms that we have, precisely for the kinds of reasons we'll be exploring in the second half of today's show. Please be sure to visit democracyatwork.info, our website, to learn more about the Democracy at Work shows, other shows we do, our union co-op store, and our two published books: Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism. And lastly, a special thanks to our Patreon community, whose invaluable support helps make this show possible. Now, more than ever, do we appreciate that kind of ongoing support to get us through these times. We'll be right back – stay with us – with much more from Dr. Harriet Fraad.

WOLFF:  Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I'm talking with Dr. Harriet Fraad, a practicing mental-health counselor and hypnotherapist in New York City. So, I want to turn next to this remarkable failure to understand the mental-health implications of what is being done now to sort of cope – unfortunately, a little bit late in the day – with this virus in the United States. And I'm particularly interested in the demand being made on millions and millions of our fellow citizens not to go out of the home, hardly at all, except maybe to the drugstore or to the food market. Many of us – millions – do not go to work anymore. Thrust together, alone if they are single individuals, in an apartment they virtually cannot leave, with a spouse, with children. There is an imposition into a very small place, where you have to stay. Everything I know about mental health – but I'm here to ask you – says that this puts all kinds of special strains, with long-term consequences, on people that haven't even been talked about, let alone planned for.

FRAAD:  Well, we can first look at the people who live alone. In a city like New York City, with its eight million people, half of people live alone. Those people count on contact with other people at work, and after work going to bars, going to restaurants. People live in little abodes, little apartments, and they socialize outside of their apartments. They're also used to being interactive with the people at the drugstore, with the people at the food market – with whoever – and that interaction is crucial. We are social animals. We need each other. There are basic needs that are so basic that a child doesn't survive unless the child is talked to, or sung to, and held. We need one another very, very badly in order to survive. So to be isolated is terrible. 

But also – and we will talk about the loneliness that happens a little later – but also to be isolated in one's family has huge consequences. It's no accident that child abuse in the United States plummets at 6 years old, and that's because children are out of the house for at least six hours a day at school. Well, if the children are in the house, they're in far greater danger. If they're in their house with their frustrated parents, who are isolated and worried about the economics of their situation, about their own lack of contact with people that they need, about their sense of a future, things are a lot worse. 

WOLFF:  So there's a real danger. I mean, to be blunt, there's a danger to the children of our society that nobody has even spoken about, that I'm aware of, let alone taken any steps to cope with.

FRAAD:  That's right. Child abuse is soaring in the United States. More and more children are taken to emergency rooms, seriously injured by their enraged parents. Babies have a spike in shaken-baby syndrome, where the parent is so frustrated at a child's crying, a baby's crying, it shakes that baby until its brain turns to jelly and they die, or until they lose a basic sense, like sight or hearing. Very dangerous. Battered-women's shelters are full. We have made no provisions for battered women, and . . .

WOLFF:  In other words, had this been planned for, had you understood what a virus can be, what a pandemic from a virus can be – like the one in 1918, or any of the others that have happened since – you should have (as we didn't) not only taken care (which we failed as a system to do) of the physical health, but you're pointing out that the mental-health consequences here are equally profound and dangerous and make the whole failure to cope even worse.

FRAAD:  It is. And the mental-health problems lead to physical-health problems. So that we have, you know, since they knew about it in December, and they did nothing, you have more and more children who are terribly abused, taken to emergency rooms full of sick people. You have women who are abused, who are brutalized, and who feel they can't escape. You have men whose frustrations are mounting and they have nobody. You know, they're not going to go to the gym and do a lot of exercises to work it off. They'll probably be punching out their wives, who are on hand, and their children. You have a real problem with physical violence without any provision: no mental health workers there, no social workers there to help, no programs to counsel people on what this does to them.

WOLFF:  Right. There's no . . . that's what blows my mind, to be honest. No preparation, no training. Even since December, you might have had crash courses for a hundred thousand people – particularly those who don't have any job anyway – to get them to be able to help, in a situation where we would know in advance this is going to put tremendous stress on spouse relationships, on parental relationships, on lonely people living alone. And it is really mind-bending what wasn't able to be done in this system, what a failure. If nothing else comes out of this, the learning of that failure is so crucial. 

FRAAD:  Well, what's even more is there's nothing being done now. There aren't programs that people can watch on television or on their internet about what to do with the tensions that mount when your children are home all day, when you have to teach them, and you don't have the patience; when you are angry and frustrated, how not to take it out on the people around you. There are no programs. There is no help. There wasn't any help in preparedness; well, there's no help now either. 

WOLFF:  The amazing thing – that's right – we could have the most popular actors and actresses and athletes, given a quick training in it, get up there where everybody will want to see you or listen to you on the radio talking about these issues to help people. Nothing, nothing.

FRAAD:  Nothing, nothing at all. 

WOLFF:  It's as dramatic a failure as not having enough beds for people, or not enough testing kits, or not enough ventilators.

FRAAD:  And with equal harm.

WOLFF:  Let me move on, because these issues are so fundamental. Many books – all right, you've talked with us on this program before – talk about a kind of loneliness in American culture and American society. It's not only in this culture, but a kind of sense of loneliness, of being isolated, the breakdown of the family. There are lots of arguments about how and where, but it's a serious problem. That problem can only be made worse if you are now barred from contact with other people. You are told it's unsafe to be in a group of other people. The loneliness is crowding in on you. And it's not a big step, if I understand it correctly, from loneliness to depression. Tell us about that, and tell us how, now, this is an urgent problem.

FRAAD:  It's urgent because loneliness is a signal to the mind and body. It's a psychophysiological signal. Just like when you're hungry, it's a signal to your mind and body: Get something to eat! Because you need food. If you're thirsty: Get something to drink! You need something to drink. When you're lonely, you need connection with other people. We are social animals. And already, before this catastrophe and the failure to handle it, one in four Americans had no one to talk to, even in the worst crisis in their lives. So we're talking about a terrible problem. The most popular programs in the United States are the 12-step programs. Millions of people are in them. You're not allowed to go to meetings. You can't be feeling the connection with those other people at meetings. There are some meetings on the Internet; it's not the same. Connection is necessary for people. And it's physical connection. It's physical proximity. The brain has to work much harder to connect with people on media than it does with people physically.

WOLFF:  Would you advocate getting people together and then having that social spacing of six to 10 feet? It would still be worth it in order to cope with the mental health . . .

FRAAD:  Of course. And if we did what Sweden did, knowing that young people and older people end up being alone – building a vast number of apartments with very small private compartments and big shared space, so that people could see a film, sitting six feet apart.

WOLFF:  The way that I noticed the reporters, when there's a press conference, Mr. Trump stands at the front, and the reporters sit in every third or fourth seat . . .

FRAAD:  Of course.

WOLFF:  . . . so that there's an appropriate safe distance, but at least they can get together and function. And if you did that for the president's news conference, why couldn't you do that for the society as a whole?

FRAAD:  Off course. You could have little microphones at every seat and have a discussion. You could have a presentation and a discussion, whether it was about what's going on here that makes people so afraid and lonely, or whatever it is. Because we need something called a biochemical that we produce called "oxytocin." It makes people feel comfort and pleasure. It comes from physical touching. It's not something you buy – you know, like OxyContin, at a drugstore – it's something you get through physical touch. And whether that physical touch was putting the money in someone's hand at the store, or physical touch with a hug, or somebody saying "good going" and hitting you on the shoulder, or physical touch from holding hands with someone you like, or shaking their hand – it's an enormous physical need. And people are doing without it. And anxiety is created. And anxiety leads to all sorts of problems. People are already becoming more obese because they're feeding themselves. They're eating their hearts out in loneliness. And diabetes leads to heart trouble and all sorts of other problems.

WOLFF:  And so if I understand you, we all know that depression is a major problem in American society. I can tell you from economics literature, it's a major problem in how people work:  the quality of the work they do, the quantity, the number of times they're absent from work. The impact on the economy of worsening the depression people have is not even mentioned, and yet it could in the end be one of the most profound consequences, not only of the failure to prepare for the pandemic but the failure to come up with ways that might have compensated for the additional loneliness that was produced.

FRAAD:  Because one of the things that happens with depression is a person sinks into themselves, and they can't think of anyone else. And they can't communicate with other people, so that it feeds on itself. And depression is a pattern that can happen, and that's very, very dangerous.

WOLFF:  I know you're not charged with this – I wish you were; I know there's no one talking about it – what can you tell our audience? What are some of the things that could be done, might be done, to begin to cope with these mental-health consequences that are getting too little attention?

FRAAD:  To try and, first of all, try to understand that there's nothing wrong with you personally, that being isolated is a terrible condition and that you need to do whatever you can about it. You need to communicate with whoever is close to you – on the internet, on the telephone, on anything you have. And you need to say, this is not a punishment sent by God because I'm bad. This is a disease, and understand how it happened, and talk to people. Talk to people; have contact with people. If you live with someone, hug them, hold them. Give each other physical touch and physical comfort. If you don't, reach out however you can. Reach out by having friends have a discussion – on the internet, on Google Chat, or whatever – where they share feelings, and needs, and reactions to this crisis.

WOLFF:  I wish we had more time.

FRAAD:  Me too. Nice touch.

WOLFF:  And all of you – not only thank you for joining us, but do join us in yet another way. This could have and should have been foreseen, planned for, and handled, with an awareness and a sensitivity not just to the economics of our lives but to the most intimate personal qualities of our present and our future. We've had a breakdown of the system, and it's the key thing to learn from.


Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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Showing 1 comment

  • Chris Flak
    commented 2020-04-07 22:10:28 -0400
    Thank you, Dr. Fraad for your candid, thoughtful assessment of the emotional effects of corona virus on the general public. I also felt your identification of the true predators/threats to mental health during the current political administration was significant. As a retired therapist, I am both relieved and hopeful to hear your compassionate validation and support during these chaotic times. You are a courageous and progressive force in mental health. Thanks again!

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