After the Inferno: Mental health, children and families in the wake of the pandemic

The first thing to know about the ‘mental health’ impact of the COVID pandemic, lockdowns and related phenomena in Australia is that things were not very good to begin with. In the few years prior to COVID, the number of Australians officially diagnosed with a mental health condition was steadily increasing. Australians’ use of SSRIs, a common class of drugs euphemistically termed ‘antidepressants’ but in fact used for a range of psychiatric conditions, was increasing even faster.i This was in the broader context of the ongoing deterioration of public services and the social safety net. Public mental health treatment, even at its best, occurred in systems overstretched and under-resourced—and, it should be said, with treatment oriented to minimal standards rather than best practice. If treatment is accessible at all, then and now, it is often something coercive and stereotyped, a one-size-fits-all approach intended to maximise throughput.

A decades-long, bipartisan political campaign of terrorising society’s most vulnerable yielded demonstrably horrific mental health effects. Asylum seekers are the paradigmatic example. Those on Centrelink benefits were kept in below-poverty conditions for years, to the point that even business advocacy groups sought an increase to the dole given that the ravages of privation rendered the unemployed ineffective as a reserve labour force. The punitive and, as is now clear, deliberately dishonest application of ‘mutual obligation’ rules to welfare recipients provoked acute crisis for many. The number of suicides caused by the Australian Robodebt scheme is not precisely known, as nobody has attempted to measure it, but the personal testimonies of victims’ families demonstrate that it is far from zero. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), once heralded as an attempt to provide universal coverage to many disabled Australians, was moved away from its broadly social-democratic structure by the Gillard government in favour of a quasi-market-based neoliberal scheme. Once in power, the Coalition government, observing that the NDIS was costly and widely rorted (though by fly-by-night operators much more than by service users), promptly implemented cuts and punitive measures.

Service users whose disability relates to the mental health field are in a particular bind, since the NDIS does not fund anything it deems a medical treatment and therefore excludes psychiatric and psychological services. These can sometimes be smuggled back into NDIS service provision, but only in very limited doses and only if presented as ‘functional capacity’ training and ‘resilience’ building, and nothing to do with the treatment of trauma or psychosis or anxiety or depression. In the widening cracks of the support system emerged an ever-increasing cabal of lobbyists and grifters seeking government support for didactic AI mental health apps to be placed on the market. Such was the state of mental health in Australia prior to the pandemic.

For children and young people, the evidence just prior to COVID-19 showed a marked increase in subjective suffering. By 2019, the largest cohort of people seeking emergency mental health support was that aged between 18 and 24, and suicide was the leading cause of death for those aged between 15 and 24. In 2018, a report tells us, 24.2 per cent of young people experienced mental distress, up from 18.7 per cent in 2012. The ‘experts’ are unclearas to why. I have some ideas. After decades of austerity and growing inequality, the destruction of most forms of collective and working-class power, the subordination of familial bonds and social relations to the imperatives of capital, a life in which both bodily enjoyments and discipline and surveillance are mediated by omnipresent digital technology and a future which promises misery and premature death, one has to be a ‘mental health expert’ to have no idea what is going on. The young people in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go are clones raised to be organ ‘donors’; the collision of our economic system with our impending environmental catastrophe makes Ishiguro’s fantasy barely metaphorical anymore.

The foreclosed futures of young people are an effect of what economists call ‘externalities’, defined as the unintentional byproducts—like pollution, or waste—that result from an economic process but for which their producers do not themselves pay. This is an age of anxiety. Because the mental health crisis, like almost all crises, turns out to be closely correlated with virtually every other crisis of our times, mental health, when viewed as a discrete portfolio, is a fiscal black hole in which even a doubling of funding would not double the rate of good outcomes. For that, an entire paradigm shift is needed, but no major party or mental health lobbyist has anything like this on their agenda.

In 2019, however, this anxiety was tempered with hope, and like hundreds of thousands of others, I attended the largest public demonstration in Australia since the 2003 Iraq War. Unprecedented numbers of citizens—estimates place it at over 300,000—and young people especially marched to demand an end to governmental apathy on climate destruction and to show that they would defiantly oppose rather than acquiesce to such destruction. True, state and federal governments quickly scrambled to make laws that would criminalise many forms of peaceful protest, but in that September of 2019 there were the beginnings of movement.

By the year’s end, over 24 million hectares of land in Australia were ablaze.

The size of the conflagration was greater than the 1983 Ash Wednesday and 2009 Black Saturday bushfires combined. We saw images of frightened people taking refuge from fire in the ocean beneath ominous red skies—images that have been recently repeated, in Greece, in Maui. The fires were hot and powerful enough to create their own weather zones. The smoke from the fires was sufficient to blacken air filters in a matter of days, even in major cities hundreds of kilometres from the epicentres of the fires. In Melbourne, the hardware stores ran out of masks suitable for filtering out smoke. I give this brief pre-pandemic history as it is important for what follows. From mask to mask, trauma to trauma.

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Government policy then, under the unctuous Morrison regime, and now under Anthony Albanese, managed these disasters in two broad ways. Notwithstanding promises of help, those who suffered the worst effects of the fires, and since then events such as the Lismore floods, were largely abandoned by the federal government. ‘You’re on your own’: this is the unofficial pillar of the Australian government’s climate policy with respect to its citizens. No developed nation is ideal in this regard, but Australian intransigence is truly sui generis. When it comes to extractive industries, however, bipartisan policy is oriented to continuing or even expanding the production and export of fossil fuels. Neither demonstrations nor previously unfathomable disasters have fundamentally altered Australia’s environmental and economic trajectory, as the nation increasingly resembles a battered alcoholic attempting to drink through the cirrhosis. It cannot even be truly attributed to cynical self-interest anymore, as a number of federal parliamentarians are young enough to see themselves and their loved ones killed by the effects of their own policies within their own lifetimes. To adapt the words of twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes, it’s as if, even in the short run, we’re all dead.

This is what Freudians call the death drive—sometimes mistranslated as the death instinct. It is the movement of an organism, circular, repetitious and infinite in nature, towards its own demise. For individuals as for the planet, it is literal, not a metaphor.

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It’s not a mainstream mental health position in the Anglophone world, but in the Lacanian-inspired version of psychoanalysis that exists elsewhere, and which for reasons of historical contingency has a respectable following in Melbourne, there is the concept of discourse. A discourse is defined as language that produces a social link. The theory provides broad templates rather than granular, predictive detail, but it involves a number of different discourse formations, with correspondingly different kinds of social bonds. Lacan formulated only four of these types of relations,ii but this did not exhaust the possibilities.

In 1973, around the time of stagflation, the OPEC crisis and Pinochet’s coup in Chile, Lacan introduced a fifth discourse—or, to put it more precisely, a pseudo-discourse. He called it the discourse of the capitalist. I call it a pseudo-discourse because the social bonds at stake within it are fleeting and illusory: between buyer and seller, gig economy worker and employer. The key feature of this pseudo-discourse is the fundamental repudiation of structural limits.iii During the Cold War, GDP growth became an index of economic success, but after it, growth without limit became an end in itself. A law is a symbolic rule or limit. It is ‘symbolic’ because it is only realised if somebody has the power to enforce it, or if its subjects have interiorised it. Laws and regulations which might produce (symbolic) restrictions on market activity have been clawed back so that all too often the only limits remaining are not symbolic but real. The diminished ability of the soil to produce nutritious food, the ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 with ever-increasing climatic effects and the crippling anxiety, depression and attentional and other difficulties of the populace constitute real limits, of the sort that arise when something is lacking symbolically.

What is missing is the lack of a limit or restriction: the lack of a lack itself. The end result is best captured by the contemporary term ‘burnout’, a phenomenon which is double-sided. The contemporary subject is ravaged as both producer and consumer, their productivity surveilled and digitally quantified, their ‘free’ time spent on bingeing as a mode of consumption. Work until you die, unless the objects of your consumption, with their microplastics, carcinogens and tendency to produce lethal climatic effects, kill you first. I understand that many people, across the political spectrum up to and including the Left, reject ‘degrowth’ politics and economics in principle, and I can understand the reasons why. Who wants to move to a politico-economic system that makes life materially worse? And where is the serious impetus for such a move anyway? On the other hand, without a symbolic limit, the limits will be real.iv

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Around December 2019, news filters through regarding a new coronavirus from Wuhan. China responds swiftly and severely, but perhaps this is typical Chinese Communist Party overreach. Somebody—one of the few, at this point—very concerned about this virus tells me that the Australian government should urgently shut the borders. But in December 2019 this is unthinkable, unprecedented.

Few in Australia have even heard of Wuhan. But it is no one-mule town. It has a population of over 12 million, and in the era of globalisation is connected to the rest of the world via international airports. Whatever one’s feelings regarding Chinese communism, the Chinese authorities give every appearance of taking planning seriously. They haven’t locked down 50 million people in multiple cities just for amusement. Shutting down transportation between the world and Wuhan would have been utterly unpalatable in late 2019, and yet it is so much more palatable than what was to follow. By March 2020, the news is worse. Images of people falling down in the streets in Tehran; hastily ordered refrigerated trucks to store the dead in Bergamo; ambulances wailing through empty streets in New York City.

Statistics in government reports—someone shares one with me—suggest that at some point in the next few months between 20 and 60 per cent (!) of Victorians will be infected with COVID-19. The reports show that 1 in 5 will have ‘serious’ problems, and about 1 per cent overall will die. There are about 440 ICU beds in all of Victoria. A lot of us are going to die. Victoria’s health systems have been systemically depleted since at least the time of Jeff Kennett’s ‘economic rationalist’ reforms of the 1990s; if hospitals are overrun, as they were in northern Italy, for instance, the death rates can be expected to be much higher. The state government debates, internally, a number of options, including very complex rotations of shopping, recreation, schooling and so forth. In the end, the government goes with a big, dumb lockdown. Just prior to the official announcement, however, around March 2020, the people of Australia start what is called ‘panic shopping’, and shelves are stripped bare of almost everything, especially toilet paper. Let us not forget that as much as vulgar Freudianism orients itself to the sexual, much of true anxiety is oriented not to the phallic, vaginal or oral, but to the anal.

Around the same time in March, I remove essential items from my consulting rooms and move to working from home via so-called Telehealth, then supported by a new government policy. In the same week that I take this decision, I note that the local public schools in Melbourne’s inner north-west begin on Monday with only about 50 per cent of students attending. By the end of the week, the figure is around 80 per cent. White-collar workers are now being directed to work from home, or demanding that their employers allow them to do so. The self-employed are waiting to see what happens. Almost everyone materially able to, and not inclined towards paranoid conspiracies, is opting to ‘socially distance’.

We should note that this was not a collective or coordinated action but rather something more akin to what I shall call ‘collective individualism’—a mass action, but one built of atomised subjects within a market. It can be contrasted with the organisational structure and discipline required for something like a general strike. Collective individualism as voluntary lockdown: this was a general strike for white-collar workers only, and with an ontology built on ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. When the Andrews state government and, more begrudgingly, the federal government called for lockdown, this was more the ratification of an existing social process than the instigation of it.

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Already, in this first lockdown, there are devastating stories. Stories of lonely deaths in isolation, of activities lost not only to lockdown but also to this virus, which is not testable in Australia at this time in any case. Tragedy and farce; lockdown births and funerals; Zoom drinks. As always, there is a class disparity: in the early weeks, the first few cases in Australia tend to come from affluent travellers returning from overseas ski trips. This will not thereafter be the case.

Not all of the stories are bad. The Morrison government gives electoral success primacy over ideological purity. It only barely retained power in 2019; Scott Morrison’s apparent indifference to climate change, encapsulated in synecdoche by the images of him relaxing in Hawaii while Australia burned, did little to endear his government to the electorate. With this in the background, the government reaches for the stimulus package. It is delivered with a dose of class warfare, as workers who accept the new ‘Jobkeeper’ payments can be subject to new conditions and hours at their workplace. Cynics in finance and elsewhere refer to the stimulus as ‘Housekeeper’, an attempt to continue inflating the Australian housing market: in Melbourne, house prices grew by around 35 per cent over the lockdown period, during which they might have been expected to fall by a roughly similar margin.

Stimulus payments are tilted heavily in favour of the self-employed, and more or less designed to be rorted. The runaway inflation that commenced in 2022 was in part due to factors exogenous to the Australian economy, but the provision of stimulus to those who didn’t need it was also a large part of it. All the same, stimulus is preferable to media images of the newly unemployed stretching for vast distances outside Centrelink offices in what looks like the next Great Depression. ‘The world goes bust’ reads the London Review of Books headline to an Adam Tooze article explaining how the world economy is flatlining. Previously, unemployment benefits afforded a living standard well below the poverty line; now at $3000 a month, long-term unemployed people are able to do remarkable things, things they haven’t done in years, like visiting dentists or having their cars repaired. Telehealth services are added to Medicare, increasing access to health services (of a sort) for those in rural areas, and Medicare mental health sessions are doubled. At this stage of the lockdowns, and for several months following, suicide rates are lower. Homeschooling at this point retains some novelty, and the pandemic looks, possibly, survivable.

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I wrote earlier of what I called ‘collective individualism’, or market individualism. We found it in the voluntary white-collar lockdowns, and we can find it also in the mass identification with very particular psychiatric diagnoses. ‘ASD’, ‘ADHD’ and ‘depression’ have become ubiquitous—even more so since the pandemic. It is true that such diagnoses open the way to certain responses: speech pathology for a child; NDIS support; medication and a battery of mental health ‘strategies’. These secondary gains tend, however, to only ever be secondary, and almost nobody identifies with similar fervour—with this zeal of the convert—with a diagnosis like ‘schizophrenia’, even though it would permit access to similar if not greater support services. Identifying with a label opens certain social and medicinal possibilities, to be sure, but it also closes others, and when it becomes the explanatory key to your life, the explanation for almost everything, the reason why your relationships have been difficult or your employment fraught, we can be sure that it is no longer a mere diagnosis at stake but something insidiously grafted onto your personhood. In short, you’ve been had. The label becomes a psychiatric prosthesis, but one which is essentialised and which damages as well as aids its host. If your diagnosis is something you can put in your twitter handle, it’s probably not primarily a diagnosis, but something else. Nobody puts diabetes in their Insta handle, or persistent haemorrhoids on their Hinge profile. My apologies if this advice contradicts what you can find articulated by Beyond Blue or the Black Dog Institute. Astrological signs would be less insidious and alienating identifications, and provide a similar level of epistemic rigour as the psychiatric ones.

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I work as a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist in private practice. By the time the first lockdown have persisted for a few weeks, referrals are steadily increasing. This will continue throughout the lockdowns, and it hasn’t really stopped since. At some points, I receive a dozen referrals a week, with no prospect of ever scheduling an appointment with these people and with no available colleagues to refer them to. As a point of honour, if not courtesy, I attempt to at least respond to each inquiry I reject, but it feels futile, tokenistic. What I prioritise are the re-referrals—namely, people who have consulted with me in the past, reached a point of equilibrium, only to have found it collapsing under the new conditions. Satisfaction, no matter how sublimated, derives from the body. The lockdowns instantly produce problems for people as to what to do with their bodies. Living conditions, jobs and relationships that might be sustainable under general conditions cease to be so in conditions of confinement. For me, this means twelve-hour working days. For others, it means despair, suicidality, day-drinking and dope-smoking, and increases in domestic violence and child abuse that are yet to be reckoned with. I am in an extremely fortunate position in that I am able to hear firsthand some of what is happening under Melbourne’s lockdowns. Not everything is shut: from the very start, there are ‘underground’ hairdressers, drug deals, parties, dates, Shabbats and even Latin masses for conservative Catholics. Even those who support the lockdowns in principle tend, as the confinement drags on, to permit themselves little liberties here and there, such as breaking the rules to see a friend or relative.

In theory, given that the federal government has shut the borders, Australia could aim for a policy of COVID zero. In Victoria, the state government opts to break the first lockdown two weeks early, prior to the school holidays, with a view to containing the spread of new infections via privatised hotel quarantine facilities. Both policies prove to be a failure, and a second, longer and more brutal lockdown ensues throughout the winter and spring of 2020, now with an 8 pm curfew. The Andrews government, while notionally centre-Left politically, is emphatically expansive with respect to policing and the carceral state. The policing of lockdown rules is naturally differential according to class and ethnic lines, and in an egregious abuse of power, police target several high-rise public housing estates in inner Melbourne for especially punitive treatment. Rumour has it that this is revenge for anti-police and anti-fascist protests associated with the estates the previous year, but in any case, Victorian police (and governments) seldom need an excuse for such actions.

Speaking of the carceral state, police in the United States are captured on film murdering a black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota. Years of organising by the Black Lives Matter movement culminates in a mass uprising that becomes the largest in US history. The increasing divergence between Trumpian politicians and their paranoiac supporters on one side and an embattled and disorganised Left on the other is one of the pandemic’s enduring legacies, at least so far.

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The tragedy of the lockdowns can be captured in the contradictory, Beckettian messages that we in Melbourne (and elsewhere) received. Movement spreads death; therefore we must not go on as before. The world (that is, the economy) must continue: therefore we must go on. We can’t go on; we must go on. Stop/go. This divided logic—what Freud termed ‘disavowal’—informed the divided response of governments and capital to the pandemic, and continues to inform the handling of the climate crisis today.

The stop/go logic of disavowal also comes to govern relations of family life insofar as adults are expected to work from home at the same time as any children in their care are supposed to be being home-schooled. The tension between these two imperatives becomes one crisis point for many households during the pandemic, and tends to result in all things being done badly. Work and education taking place within one and the same household creates largely antagonistic aims. Employment presupposes schools that can function essentially as creches, and the function of schooling as de facto childcare becomes more pronounced once home education strips the school environment of its routines, pointless busywork, disciplinary functions and socialising. The schooling itself is now mediated entirely via devices, and while at the level of content it is still notionally oriented by teachers, it is administered by parents already beleaguered by the demands of their own employment under lockdown. Many single people have a different sort of crisis—one of loneliness and isolation—the more so since lockdown policy for 2020 (but not 2021) does not cater for these groups of people at all.

Several consequences ensue from these arrangements, and I’ll touch on some of the more salient.

The child is the symptom of its family, and it can be said that the above-mentioned problems with satisfaction for the parents make family life more symptomatic. This is perhaps most clearly the case in childhood diagnoses of ADHD, which prior to the pandemic were consistently more likely to be attributed to children who were the youngest in their class.v This suggests that the diagnosis in children is being driven largely by perceived non-compliance in those who are less developed relative to their older peers. The diagnosis and attendant treatment are not principally for the child per se, but arise from the inconvenience the child’s conduct poses for grown-ups. No doubt, attentional problems and hyperactivity ‘truly’ exist both in children and adults, but the label ‘ADHD’ does not distinguish between problems caused by post-traumatic effects, intrusive, obsessional thoughts, cognitive impairment, psychotic phenomena or anxiety. Note that in Australia, virtually the only treatment for ADHD for people of any age is stimulant medication.

Identifying a child as being disordered in their attention and treating this principally as a biochemical problem has the effect of decontextualising the reasons why that child might be struggling with attention, and subtly makes compliance and conformity measures of good mental health. It should be noted in passing that a recent study by the University of Melbourne demonstrated that the effects of ADHD medications on ‘healthy’ individuals in fact impeded performance on a cognitive task, notwithstanding the self-perceptions of those consuming the drugs. A lucrative industry has developed since the pandemic to cater for the vast numbers of people, mostly under forty, self-identifying as ADHD in order to receive prescription stimulants.

The mediation of all education and social contact outside of family via devices is also, according to a number of studies, detrimental to attention. The nature of scrolling through a phone, computer or tablet is such that it provides small portions of salient or minimally satisfying ‘content’ at a rapid rate, but at the level of form the model is one of pure, self-administered addiction. Readers may have tested this for themselves: if you spend several hours a day, several days per week, scrolling through a device and then attempt to read a dense text, for example, the effect is comparable to returning to the gym after a six-month hiatus.

Moreover, the prioritising of satisfaction—of any sort, in effect—over activities in which gratification is limited or delayed, combined with the inability to separate from familial structures in order to socialise can be expected to produce a significant increase in anxiety. Consequently, the social dimension of schooling, far from being merely incidental to learning, in fact improves the educational dimensions of school. The upshot in a place such as Melbourne, with its world-record-breaking lockdowns, is that an entire cohort of children has fallen behind educationally relative to other cohorts, developed a series of almost ubiquitous mental health conditions (ADHD and anxiety being two of the most prevalent) and become habituated to addiction as the modus operandi of satisfaction itself, exemplified in the use of devices.

Addiction as a mode of satisfaction was becoming generalised in the developed world even prior to the pandemic, but it became rampant during the lockdowns, whether in the consumption of drugs and alcohol, pornography or gambling, or even in consumption itself (for example, online shopping, often combined with substance use). It is not difficult to see how, at a time of universal societal crisis such as Melbourne’s during the first two years of the pandemic—and more broadly, with an ‘end times’ sentiment predominating in connection with climate change—individuals avail themselves of whatever satisfaction is ready to hand. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, why not indulge in this or that enjoyment? I have some sympathy for this position, but the problem is that once the satisfaction in question is locked into the treadmill of compulsion, it tends towards the burnout that I mentioned earlier. Moreover, the outlook underpinning this mode of satisfaction—that short-term gratification is justified because we’re all doomed anyway—is the mirror image of the world-view of the fossil fuel industry and extractive capitalism, always seeking to open just one more coal mine, to export just one more tonne of poison. ‘Après moi, le déluge!’ is still the watchword of every capitalist and capitalist nation.

The logic of sabotage, of ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ (for example, industrial workers throwing wrenches into factory machinery to disrupt production), can be invoked here. Halting, however temporarily and however crudely, the means of production or the means of satisfaction may allow the time and space that are the prerequisite for something else to emerge. ‘Sabotage’ (deriving from the French sabot), a word suggestive of bungles, is also suggestive of what Freud called ‘parapraxis’—namely when you say (or do) one thing but mean another. In a psychoanalytic sense, such ‘slips’ can be contrasted with other products of the unconscious (such as dreams, fantasies and neurotic symptoms) in that they are successful actions at one level and at the same time evidence of a desire contrary to conscious meaning (that is, the illusory stories and ideologies we see invoke for ourselves). In this vein, terms like ‘depression’ and ‘ADHD’ and the other diagnoses are depoliticised, medical jargon, but they also mark a displaced resistance, even refusal, for subjects who are ostensibly and consciously giving the appearance of official compliance with the status quo. It is sabotage but without the emancipatory politics.

Perhaps it sounds trivially obvious, but the desire for something else as an alternative to the status quo, which is to say desire per se, require a space in which anxiety and satisfaction are not permitted to be totalising. It may seem somewhat paradoxical to place anxiety and satisfaction in the same series, but consider that, contrary to popular wisdom, anxiety usually indicates a need to separate from something, and that ‘something’ is something real and material. The anti-anxiety effects of substances, for example, produce a merely imaginary separation from real conditions, and they are usually short-lived and give way to something like ‘hangxiety’ soon after. In time, the objects of addiction can themselves become part of the real, material conditions from which one must urgently separate. Getting out of the logic of endless self-administered enjoyment without limit—something that even teachers impose upon Australian students in the form a so-called ‘growth mindset’—requires getting away from the ubiquitous devices that both satisfy and surveil, and moving towards social bonds: towards something that is not purely self-administered.

It is not from some wistful humanism that I suggest this, and indeed one of the more poignant lessons of the lockdowns is that it is fundamentally difficult to live with our fellow beings. But there is hope of a better status quo precisely because of, and not in spite of, this difficulty. It is unsurprising that the pandemic led to a ‘baby bust’ (decline in birth rates) in most parts of the world, given that this period also coincided with economic crisis, societal-level uncertainty and compromised access to healthcare. What is more curious is that notwithstanding the notional increase in ‘free time’ in the seclusion of a home environment, sexual activity involving other people significantly decreased, while solitary erotic activity underwent a corresponding increase.vi Compared to many of the other satisfactions that increased during the pandemic, sex is free, renewable and relatively harmless, but because it necessitates a difficult detour via social relations of one sort or another, it tends to be much more resistant to being taken up as a compulsion or addiction. To be clear, I’m not advocating for sex as a literal panacea for personal or social ills, but rather wish to suggest the analogy that while what would better serve us is something outward-directed like sex, what we have ended up with is the private, often guilt-ridden narcissistic enjoyment of masturbation. These are not merely two different ‘objects’ of satisfaction but two different paradigms, situated at the junction I mentioned earlier concerning lack and limit, which while being disruptive to endless enjoyment can also be the corollary of desire.

The pandemic presented another fundamental reason why the turn to social bonds is more necessary than ever. For many, and for young people in particular, the extended lockdowns will have constituted a trauma. This latter term has now been so thoroughly debased as to mean virtually any unpleasant event whatsoever, but a more rigorous definition can be obtained if we take it to refer to that which is outside of or beyond representation. Precisely because it exceeds representation, trauma has a tendency to resist integration into either the psyche or most social milieus, as well as a tendency to be unconsciously repeated. The claustrophobic, anxiogenic conditions of lockdowns; the halting of regular friendships except via devices; the profound distortions involved in the perception of time; the experience of watching a world convulse into cataclysms via the pinholes of one’s home and over a prolonged period: all of these are elements that for some young people will have constituted a trauma.

For those who may be sceptical on this point, I would suggest some engagement with Dantean theology and linger on a word I have used throughout this essay, namely ‘movement’. The punishments of the Inferno and Purgatory differ not so much in terms of their severity as in their circularity, their repetition and their integration (or lack thereof) into a teleology. For suffering not to be hellish, senseless repetition but merely purgatorial, something is needed: love, an ideal, a Beatricé. Readers can ask themselves whether the grim status quo that prevailed for young people even prior to the pandemic—the impoverished and desperate ‘normal’ that existed—could ever be a Beatricé.

There is little good news to be had here. Notwithstanding the claims of those with pharmaceuticals, hallucinogens or techniques in eye movement and desensitisation, trauma may become more or less possible to live with, but it is not clear that it can always be cured. One of the few devices that we have to tame the worst effects of trauma is the attempt to bring traumatic phenomena into representation. This could be via the symbolisation of artistic production, but more simply it could occur via words. Sigmund Freud arrived at this idea of handling trauma via observation of his grandson as an infant. The infant, helpless, remained in his cot, subject to the comings and goings of his mother without grasping the motive force behind these movements. In play, the young child came to throw a spool in and out of his cot, and with each movement, symbolised it with the German words for ‘here’ and ‘gone’. This allowed for a symbolic mastery of what was otherwise outside of all representation, and moreover control. Or in other words, to borrow from Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘And worse I may be yet: the worst is not so long as we can say, “This is the worst”’.

One of the more subtle and insidious effects of the conquest of mental health discourse on social life, especially for young people, is the impossibility of simply saying ‘This is the worst’. Mental health lobbyists will argue that psychiatric diagnoses are horrendously stigmatised, and while a small number are, the difficulty at present is not so much for individuals to overcome the supposed shame of confessing to a psychological condition, but rather to overcome the widespread imperative to filter all subjective suffering through the alienated, objectifying pseudo-scientific jargon of mental health discourse. Confessing to mental health problems is not so much prohibited as it is mandatory, and other possibilities for articulating suffering, whether via political, philosophical or artistic means, are increasingly foreclosed. Individuals are encouraged to identify with a condition which then becomes subject to self-management and self-surveillance. The diagnoses themselves become identity markers in the manner of the social media handles mentioned earlier. But if these markers become near universal—and who isn’t a little anxious, depressed and autistic these days?—then the labels can neither function as terms to organise bonds nor tell us anything remotely significant about the bearer of them. They become yet more insignia of collective individualism, a social catastrophe transmuted into a question of private identification and personal choice. Rather than articulate suffering, the traumatised are tacitly expected to push themselves through the surreal experience of pretending that the months of discombobulated confinement, the time and lives lost, can be disavowed in order to better comply with the status quo.

This problem is largely invisible to mental health professionals themselves, but it can be elucidated fairly clearly in Marxist or Hegelian terms. If I attempt to convey my subjective distress via some of the means I suggested earlier—politics or artistic production, for instance—this is naturally not guaranteed to do much to improve anybody’s material conditions. It might, however, allow for an externalisation of an otherwise mute, subjective pain in which I recognise myself and in which others can recognise me.vii If instead I am compelled to convey my suffering through the objectification of questionnaires, or dubious psychiatric labels, or the propositional (and easily refuted) statements of cognitive therapy, I may receive the recognition of a mental health professional, having been disciplined into their jargon, but I will now have produced an externalisation that is profoundly alienating.viii

Contemporary mental health systems, especially in the Anglophone world, degrade the significance of language. In an attempt to ape the ‘hard’ sciences, the soft sciences reduce linguistic expression to mere data points to be transposed into the crude register of mental health. The function of language as relation is effaced in favour of a reduction of language to information. Symptoms are then mistaken for causes, and stricken young people are encouraged into a regime of self-surveillance—often via the same devices and with the same self-administered and narcissistic structures that gave rise to their problems in the first place. All the while, this colonises the time and space that the suffering person might otherwise have for the desire for things to be different.

This is all the more striking in that young people have every reason for subjective suffering. In the pandemic, they sacrificed a period of their youth essentially for the sake of the safety of those older. Meanwhile, government ‘stimulus’ and class warfare effectively produced a massive transfer of wealth from the less well-off to their fiscal superiors. The problem of climate change is worsening, and so is anxiety about it: a massive international study demonstrated not only that young people have serious anxiety about their futures but these worries are, in practice, frequently dismissed. It is hard not to see the prevailing responses of politicians and mental health experts alike as dismissive. Meanwhile, those with the anxiety are encouraged to identify with labels the self-affirmation of which may be potentially harmful, and to engage in cheap, asocial, generic online treatments that reproduce the very problems of lockdown that they purport to treat.

In the absence of any meaningful political response to these problems, symptoms such as these are themselves a sort of displaced resistance. Every depression is a failed revolution. All satisfaction is composed of narcissistic elements, but when the elements are only narcissistic, the satisfaction at stake becomes the index of failures at the level of social bonds. In 1973, Huey P. Newton was able to write movingly of his notion of ‘revolutionary suicide’. Fifty years on, only half of this concept appears existentially possible.

i Juliana de Oliveira Costa, Malcolm B. Gillies, Andrea L. Schaffer, David Peiris, Helga Zoega and Sallie-Anne Pearson, ‘Changes in antidepressant use in Australia: A nationwide analysis (2015-2021)’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 57(1), 2023, pp 49-57.

ii In multiple places, Lacan discussed four discourses in particular: those of the Master, the University, the Hysteric and the Analyst.

iii In Lacanian jargon, what I refer to here as ‘structural limits’ would be termed ‘castration’.

iv Eco-fascism tends, in the last resort, to be the fantasy of a sovereign who would properly be able to set the rules and limits required to sustain life, at least, for a privileged few.

v Martin Whitely, Melissa Raven, Sami Timimi, Jon Jureidini, John Phillimore, Jonathan Leo, Joanna Moncrieff and Patrick Landman, ‘Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder late birthdate effect common in both high and low prescribing international jurisdictions: a systematic review’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60(4), 2019, pp 380–391.

vi Mojgan Masoudi, Raziyeh Maasoumi and Nicola Luigi Bragazzi, ‘Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on sexual functioning and activity: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, BMC Public Health, 22(1), 2022, p. 189.

vii Sometimes, the widespread phenomenon of adolescent self-mutilation is a cursory attempt at such an externalisation, albeit it, an impoverished one.

viii A great article on the first-hand experience of this can be found in ‘Not My Words, Not My Story’ by Julia Buxton.

About the author

David Ferraro

Dr David Ferraro is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist working in Melbourne. He is a longstanding member and former president of the Lacan Circle of Australia.

More articles by David Ferraro

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Comments

I really appreciated this article. Reading about the Melbourne lockdown here, which I willingly participated in, allowed me to admit to myself how traumatic it was. The articulation of trauma as that which is beyond representation is helpful. The link to Julia Buxton’s piece was also worthwhile. Thanks.

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