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OPINIONSocietyMarch 24, 2020

Chlöe Swarbrick: Take a moment. You’re not alone

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The world, and our lives, are transforming before us, writes Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has been self-isolated for over a week. As our collective fast-paced metabolism meets a slowing down of the world around us, it’s time to look after your mental health.

In the blink of an eye, the world has changed. What was urgent a week ago isn’t any more. What matters right now is the health and safety of all of us.

Yesterday, the prime minister announced that our preparation against and monitoring of Covid-19 means we are now at Alert Level 3, escalating to Alert Level 4 and into a country-wide shutdown by midnight Wednesday.

Everything we typically take for granted in our daily lives has been turned on its head. Our information metabolic rate – evolved by 2020 to navigate and absorb the thousands of pieces of communication, work, data and memes we’re bombarded with on a daily basis – is about to meet an unprecedented period of slow-down.

For a substantial number of people who’ve built their identity on being busy, this can present a unique challenge.

You’ll recall kitsch social media quotes reminding you not to narrowly align your self-worth to your job. You’ll also find a whole lot of “advice” that if you’re not where you want to be in life, it’s your own fault; work the nightshift, network harder, and study in your lunch breaks.

A whole lot of people grew up knowing nothing but that cognitive dissonance: being told to focus on what makes them happy, so long as it makes good money. At school we studied Aotearoa New Zealand’s historical claims to fame through collective action and dramatic socio-political-economic upheaval (women’s suffrage, nuclear-free NZ), while our parents read current-day news despairing about activists and advocates interrupting business as usual (climate strikes, any one?).

That’s the world we inherited: Shoulder its weight, but change it. Remember and honour the disrupters, but don’t disrupt. Be the best you can be, so long as that means you’re climbing the proverbial ladder. Make profit, not transformation.

We were playing by the rules, but they weren’t working for most of us. Sometimes we felt really lost and out of place. But we kept working, because this was normal, and we had been told if we didn’t fit in, we weren’t.

And then there was a global pandemic.

The severity of the current situation cannot be overstated. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world have contracted the virus, and more than 16,000 have died. Our best defence is practical prevention through physical distancing and limiting the movement of people (and now, self isolation), tracking of its spread, flattening the spread’s curve, and good hand washing.

This moment in history has wiped the slate clean on our modern (and, as many indigenous activists have meaningfully critiqued, inherently colonial) hierarchy of perceived needs. We’re getting back to basics.

Making sure everyone has a roof over their head, kai in their cupboards, water from the tap. Ensuring everyone is physically safe and healthy. Then, social connection, then, if we’re lucky, Abraham Maslow’s infamous pinnacle of ‘self actualisation.’

Far too many of us are accustomed to depleting that foundational wellbeing to maintain the ‘busy’ we’ve grown up to define ourselves by. And now, the lives we’ve created by making ourselves busy and putting our human requirements on the backburner – whether we work behind a bar or in a small business we’ve built from scratch – feels deeply fragile and at risk. And that doesn’t even touch the sides on the quarter of a million New Zealanders with clinically diagnosed mental ill health.

Many of us are used to filling our days with to-the-hilt routine and distraction, but a life-threatening virus presses pause on all of that. We’ve been forced to reprioritise, and to do it largely in solitude.

The reason that’s not easy is because it’s not how human brains are supposed to work. The government’s own recent Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry affirmed mountains of contemporary research showing that regardless of whether you have an underlying biological predisposition towards mental ill health, your environment and circumstance can either aggravate or mitigate that.

Basically, we’re social sponges. Our surroundings unquestionably make us better or worse off. Far too many of us are acclimated to internalising traumatic circumstances; the normalised insecurity of work, housing and a future. And for a lot of us, when we can’t cope that’s not an underlying mental health issue bubbling to the surface; that’s poverty and inhuman levels of stress seeping in.

So of course, it’s a bit daft to prescribe individual “resilience” in the face of some of the most abnormal and unusual stuff that’s ever happened in any of our lives, at a time in human history where our technological development has rapidly outpaced evolution. No one lives in a vacuum. We’re part of the society we live in. We need each other.

And together, we have an opportunity to completely redraw the boundaries of acceptability. If a period of slightly-more-than-usual rest and reflection causes immense anxiety, it’s critical to confront that perhaps it’s because we’ve been accustomed to distraction. We have been each individually abiding by, in turn upholding, a ‘normal’ that doesn’t actually work very well for any of us.

When we’re all so uncharacteristically focused on our collective health to the extent that we’re uprooting the lives that have, ironically, made so many deeply unhealthy and disconnected, we’ve got a generational opportunity to consciously redefine the normal we return to. In particular, for the first time in my lifetime, we’re organising our society to prioritise and uplift the wellbeing of citizens typically relegated to afterthought in policy design: those we construct as the most ‘vulnerable’ through deprivation, lack of access and support.

First things first, take a moment to breathe. It’s time to look after yourself and develop a new daily routine: shower and get into clean clothes, make your bed, clean your workspace. Move your body where you can. Opt for video calls over phone calls.

Then, find your people. Join one of the many community Facebook, Twitter and Google Doc groups cropping up to connect people in your neighbourhood, perform acts of solidarity and support and redistribute resources. This is grassroots organisation. We scale it up and the world changes.

Without that intentional connection with each other and recognition of our power for change, we tide over business as usual. There’s the ironclad proof of our interdependence, not just for our physical health in the face of this global pandemic, but for our mental health in getting through it.

For the first time across the supposedly developed world, foundational wellbeing has genuinely – not just rhetorically – become our top priority. After years of campaigning, we’re at a tipping point where compassion and humanity is starting to spark as common sense to even Conservative governments in the likes of Australia, who’ve just doubled their baseline payments to beneficiaries.

We might be in isolation, but we’re all in this together. And together, we decide what happens next.

Keep going!