Fear, anxiety, depression, stress: these have been the most recurring words to describe life in the time of Covid, but besides what is heard on TV and read in the press every day, what is really happening to us? How has the pandemic been affecting us mentally? What problems have been referred by people seeking psychological support? And most of all, who are the people seeking it?
We have asked all these questions to Alessandra Gabrielli, a psychoanalyst with a large background working with patients in developmental age and more. She is one of the founders of the Society for Psychotherapy Research’s Italian branch, and she collaborates with several schools in Milan as a special educational need advisor, besides being a researcher for the International Psychoanalytical Association.
Alessandra, a recent study shows that teenagers are most at risk because of Covid restrictions. Does your experience confirm this?
First, I would like to better define the segment of population that we are discussing, and to introduce a different categorization, just to be clearer. If we are talking about childhood, we are referring to children before and after elementary school, until 10 years of age; puberty also concerns children attending middle school, until 13 years of age. Adolescence regards young people in high school, until 18-20 years of age. Then, there is a whole new segment ranging from 20 to 30-35 years of age, where young people stop being cared for by their family but do not have their own offspring yet; next, there are adults, and last, the elderly.
At the moment, I see many adults worrying – about their job, about their health, about their children, about their own parents. Troubled adults are the most complicated cases, especially for the children or teenagers in their care. These adults can no longer help them face developmental difficulties, so they can no longer fulfill three of their main parenting duties: quenching anxiety, instilling hope, and thinking.
Today’s adults in Italy have never experienced the troubles of war and the following trauma, so they have raised a generation that does not know what facing real difficulties mean. Our youth can hardly tolerate frustration. Learning how to tolerate frustration is not even considered by parents as part of their kids’ education these days. Therefore, to answer your questions, based on the experience I have gained in my privileged position, I can say that the age groups that have been most suffering lately are adults and the elderly.
Have not socializing and mobility restrictions been affecting teenagers and younger children more?
In my experience, adolescents have been coping fairly well. They have managed to go on with their social life. Virtually, of course! But while adults perceive the virtual reality as a substitute for real-life social gatherings, teenagers find it more familiar because they are already using it to communicate on a regular basis. It is surely a difficult time, but it does not seem to be that dramatic for them, in my opinion.
Children going through puberty and young people between 20 and 35 years of age have been hit much harder. In puberty, children start to detach from adults, which is impossible now, since at least one adult is always home. Their development is thus halted. Things are even different for young people who are not teenagers any longer, but not even adults yet. They had got used to a lifestyle where everything was happening outside home, which has now sunk, so they lack the resources to create a new one. This population segment shows some sort of laziness that prevents it from creating alternatives, making them incapable of facing the present difficulties.
However, several studies have been reporting rising cases of self-harm and internet addiction among adolescents. What could be the reason for this?
We are discussing trends that have been rising in this age bracket, but this is not due to the pandemic. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst, exacerbating situations that were already there before. Spending longer time home than ever before, those parents who never taught their children how to tackle difficulties are now even more realizing the discomfort that their kids are experiencing. Once again, it is the adults’ incapacity to face such difficulties in their parenting role that creates problems for teenagers. Before, adults used to be able to manage young people’s problems, but this is often not the case now. Adults lack the means, and kids find themselves without adults that can limit their suffering. Today, we are more interesting in supporting than in re-planning. Our horizon is the past, not the future, while we should actually be re-planning, rethinking, finding new solutions to new problems, re-building a new present in all fields.
And how does this re-planning affect the elderly?
The elderly have suffered greatly, and they still are. Let’s just think about how this emergency has been handled. Doing shopping online, booking vaccines on digital platforms… every problem has been solved with a digital solution! And the elderly are cut out from everything digital by nature! If they are not cared for by a young person or adult who are familiar with the digital world, the elderly do not know how to manage all this.
Moreover, especially in the first lockdown, there was not a single old man or woman that was not experiencing the pain and suffering of separation, distance, the death of a loved one (which they often had to cope with alone), the impossibility to see their families or friends… all this left its mark on them, and worsened the mental and physical decline, the paranoia and the distrust typical to this age.
Last December 9, the Italian council of psychological scientific societies wrote to the government asking for prompt actions to tackle the psychological discomfort that thousands of people have been experiencing because of Covid.
Unfortunately, our profession is still a limbo, an undefined are between medical treatments and social assistance. Psychotherapy is considered as something that could potentially benefit everyone, but not as a medical treatment leading to recovery. Once again, I have noticed a rise in the demand in this period, but for urgent situations to cushion, not from people willing to undertake a healing path.
When there is no hope, adults panic and do not how to respond. This is yet again a problem affecting adults, linked to their vision, horizon and future.