Racial Profiling and the Pandemic – Two Public Health Emergencies

Racial Profiling and the Pandemic – Two Public Health Emergencies

OPINION

Racial Profiling and the Pandemic – Two Public Health Emergencies

Alice Forbes

25th June 2020

 

To help slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advocated for the wearing of face coverings in public spaces; a minor inconvenience that we should all be willing to endure for the benefit of those around us. In the United States, however, this has not been so easy a sacrifice for many within the Black community, who have expressed fear that covering their face in public could exacerbate racial profiling.

 

This is a concern that has been further intensified by the CDP’s recommendation of DIY face coverings as a substitution for professional-grade surgical masks, which, in the US especially, are worryingly scarce. A tweet by Aaron Thomas, a teacher living in Ohio, went viral in April shortly after these guidelines came into force. Thomas expressed unease at the idea of wearing anything that isn’t “CLEARLY a protective mask”, owing to the fact that he is a Black man.

 

 

For many Black Americans, wearing a face mask could be equivalent to putting their life at risk, due to the reality of racially prejudiced targeting, and this is something that even official authorities are forced to recognize. A document entitled “COVID-19 General Guidance on Wearing Face Masks for African Americans and Communities of Color ” was subsequently published by Franklin County Public Health, and instantly slammed as offensive by many Americans. In it, a section dedicated to homemade masks recommended the avoidance of “bandanas that are red or blue, as these are typically associated with gang symbolism”. The guidelines continued: “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavoury behaviour, although not intended”. Although Franklin County Public Health was quick to issue an apology, acknowledging that their language came across as “blaming the victims”, the mere fact that the document was released in the first place is indicative of the prevalence of racial profiling, andits potentially dangerous consequences.

 

It is not just makeshift face coverings which appear to incite this racial bias. In March, two Black men in Illinois filmed themselves being escorted out of a Walmart for wearing what were evidently surgical masks. In the video, which has since been viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube, a police officer is seen walking behind the pair as they exit the shop. One of the men narrates: “He just followed us from outside, told us that we can’t wear masks. This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and trying to stay safe.” Amid a global pandemic, trying to stay safe is everyone’s top priority. However, while wearing a mask may offer protection against the coronavirus, it clearly cannot protect against racism.

 

“However, while wearing a mask may offer protection against the coronavirus, it clearly cannot protect against racism”

Furthermore, recent cases of police brutality in the US, such as the murder of George Floyd, have evidenced the urgency with which racially targeted bias against the Black community must be combated. For this reason, large-scale public demonstrations have erupted, which by their very nature may cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. Factors such as a shortage of masks and the viral spread of droplets from protestors chanting could contribute to this. However, police tactics also share a responsibility in threatening to accelerate the spread of the virus. Violent retaliation against demonstrators further impedes their ability to social distance. At the same time, the spraying of tear gas is known to cause recipients to cough, salivate and shed tears, all things we have been told to refrain from while in public. However, despite existing medical guidelines urging people to stay indoors, many health professionals are endorsing the demonstrations. Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist is quoted in an article by Vox as saying: “It’s always been ‘stay at home as much as possible, except for essential activities.’ […] Protesting police violence is an essential activity for a lot of people.”

 

The risk of transmitting the virus is complicated by pressing moral stakes. If in doubt about the urgency with which the systemic discrimination against Black Americans must be tackled, you need only look at how disproportionately the pandemic is currently affecting their community. Recent figures relating to COVID-19 compiled by the APM Research Lab reveal that the mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times higher than the rate for Whites. Longstanding structural inequalities mean that the Black community are overrepresented among the lower-paid workforce who are unable to work remotely during the pandemic. This reality, that Black Americans earn disproportionately less than their white counterparts, additionally makes them less likely to be able to afford health insurance and, therefore, more likely to suffer pre-existing health conditions.

 

The wearing of face coverings and the avoidance of large gatherings are two of the principle guidelines recommended by medical experts to protect yourself and others against the coronavirus. However, for Black Americans, abiding by these guidelines carries added risks. Wearing face coverings may exacerbate racially biased discrimination and violence while abstaining from large gatherings limits the degree to which one can protest against this same discrimination and violence. The cruelly ironic result is that the community who have long been most likely to experience the potentially life-threatening consequences of racial profiling additionally now hold the highest COVID-19-related mortality rate. The coronavirus is an emergency that has suddenly given rise to global collective action. Racial profiling is an emergency in itself and now, more than ever, it requires the same degree of action.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Wikimedia

 
 

 

 

Why Stone Statues Don’t Represent Equally Enduring Beliefs

Why Stone Statues Don’t Represent Equally Enduring Beliefs

OPINION

Why Stone Statues Don’t Represent Equally Enduring Beliefs

Olivia Moore

24th June 2020

On Sunday 7th June, Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol harbour. The monument, who made his fortune in the slave trade by transpoting about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas, had been a source of controversy in the city for many years, garnering repeated calls for its removal. It was later fished out of the harbour, with Bristol city council saying that the statue will eventually stand in a museum, alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest. 

 

The conscious choices to both tear down the statue in the first place, and to preserve it in a museum, are symbolic of the tug-of-war that dominates the history of the world: the lessons that we learn through the decades are founded on what we decide to remember and to forget as a global community. There are always disagreements about what we opt to retain – and occasionally, such disagreements bubble over.

 

This conflict has been bubbling closer to home as well – People Before Profit recently called on local Galway authorities to remove Irish monuments that glorify slavery and racism, including a Christopher Columbus statue in Galway, as well as a plaque in Tuam that honours Major Richard Dowling, who served with the Confederate army in the US. 

 

Of course, despite these more contemporaneous calls, Ireland is no stranger to tearing down the odd statue. Over the decades of the twentieth century, the attempt to rid Ireland of the relics of British imperialism became an operation of itself, the most famous example being the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 by Republican dissidents. Despite reservations on the aesthetic or indeed the meaning of the Spire erected in its place, I highly doubt that many would prefer to see the Pillar standing in its spot today. 

 

Why, then, the sudden controversy over the tearing down of statues enshrining those who committed racist endeavours?

 

Diarmaid Ferriter in a recent Irish Times article claimed that “To tear statues down as an act of protest can be deeply satisfying and cathartic, but does it also do violence to historical context and messy, layered identities and inheritances? And how far should it go?” Another call has been made by the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is also the first black woman to become a bishop in the Church of England, for plaques to be erected on statue plinths, explaining the person’s actions and deeds, and putting into context the reason why the monument was erected in the first place. The overall argument is made that we must retain links with our past, even if it means keeping public figures, known to be responsible for inhumane actions, on pedestals, in order to attain maturity as a society and to warn future generations against committing similar wrongdoings.

 

“Over the decades of the twentieth century, the attempt to rid Ireland of the relics of British imperialism became an operation of itself, the most famous example being the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 by Republican dissidents

On some level, I agree. The very purpose of studying the history of the world is to learn from our mistakes – to remember them and to be shamed into doing better in the future. Surely this would mean that such statues and monuments should remain, with added messages plaqued on for the contemporaneous beholder. Here is a man who was celebrated for X. But he also did Y and Z. And it was wrong. 

 

But somehow, I don’t feel that this is enough. A tardy disclaimer does not go far to signify the utter rejection we feel for inhumane ideology and action as racism and the slave trade, as in the current case. I am all for education, but education can be achieved while not glorifying the perpetrators of such a barbaric cause. 

 

Recent days have witnessed statues across the world being graffitied, decapitated and levelled. These acts all constitute iconoclasm, the social belief in the importance of destroying icons, imagery and monuments for typically religious or political reasons. Of course, the iconoclasm of late has concerned acts of protests filled with meaning and layered with centuries of anger, pain, and largely unresolved injustice. 

 

The argument of many follows the lines that to remove offensive statues is to destroy historical memory – the very circuit breaker of humanity. But perhaps such a historical memory, as triggered by statues like Colston, does not have a place in our everyday lives anymore – especially if, through statues and monuments, such traumatic memory is piqued against our will. Of course, the genuinely heartening stories should be told – but so should the “moral failures” that hide behind them. Some stories are filled with such shame that to remember them does not lighten the burden of the suffering caused.  

 

Countries like Germany understand this: Whether you walk around Berlin or Bonn, you will not see a statue of one Nazi general: in the years after World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany systematically destroyed any and all statues and monuments related to Nazism. So, as Sebastian Smee of the Washington Post puts so perfectly: “If, as an African American, you are out with your kids or walking to work, why should you have to pass by a giant statue of Robert E. Lee — a man who led the fight to maintain the enslavement of your people? Why should the city — your city, where you pay taxes — be planting flower beds around such a statue? Take it down.”

 

As Cian O’Donovan noted in response to Ferriter’s judgment, the argument on the side of preserving history appears to neglect the “current controversy’s chief concern – that statues in our streets are political statements in the present.” To celebrate people who were responsible for slavery and racism, to immortalise them in metal and stone, to display them proudly for the world to see, simply ensures the absolute prevention of progress and reform for as long as they stand. Statues perpetrating immoral ideology should be relegated to museums – the institutions which are best equipped to unravel their complicated and multifarious place in the world: past, present and future. When can we begin to learn from our mistakes, rather than to idolise them?

 

 

 

Featured photo by @YesYoureRacist

 
 

 

 

Direct Provision and the Lasting Impact of COVID-19

Direct Provision and the Lasting Impact of COVID-19

OPINION

Direct Provision and the Lasting Impact of COVID-19

Niamh Elliott-Sheridan

23rd June 2020

 

Over the past few months, while immersed in the coronavirus pandemic, Ireland has successfully “flattened the curve”, with daily confirmed cases finally consistently minimal. As wider society marks this triumph with the gradual easing of restrictions, people on the margins continue to suffer greatly, with little recognition or action. Covid-19 infection has increased rapidly in Direct Provision centres around the country. Between May 5th to May 8th, there was a jump from 62 to 149 cases across DP centres, including 10 clusters and 10 hospitalisations. At the beginning of June, there were 175 confirmed cases among asylum-seeking residents. However, inadequate testing and a lack of updates are alluding to inaccurate results.

 

Around 7,000 people are in DP, including 1,778 children – who are 5 times more likely to have mental health problems. At the beginning of May, the Department of Justice and Equality confirmed that 1,700 people living in Direct Provision centres share a bedroom with non-family members. In addition, many more residents share washing, laundry and cooking or canteen spaces, with most centres lacking cooking facilities altogether. On top of privacy and space issues, social distancing is not feasible in this system; therefore, the way it is run makes it impossible for residents to comply with the State’s public health guidelines. A threat to the right to life, the State is letting these vulnerable people down as the centres are run for profit. The underlying issue persists: direct provision needs to be abolished. In the meantime, there needs to be priority testing for people in congregated communities. Challenging times show national leadership’s true colours, from the temporary emergency social welfare payment highlighting the absence of a living wage for thousands of workers, to the care, consideration and action taken to help those in marginalised communities.

 

Asylum seekers living in DP, who had permission to work but lost their jobs due to the health crisis, stopped receiving the €350 emergency unemployment payment after a fortnight. They were put back on a €38.80 weekly allowance. When asked to clarify reasons behind the change, a spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection said the residents have “accommodation and other basic needs met by the State, and the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment is not available to them.” Needs are not being met in any shape, whether physical or emotional. An image of the sub-standard dinner given to a pregnant woman within the system has gone viral, which consisted of meagre bread rolls and an unidentifiable sauce.

 

“Simon Harris publicly thanked the 160 healthcare workers who live in Direct Provision for their contribution. This discourse is loaded with contradiction, as asylum seekers’ right to work has an absolute ban on employment in public bodies, such as the Civil Service, Local Authorities, or Governmental entities

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has rejected calls to close the Direct Provision centre at Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, whilst apologising to the residents for how it was opened – meanwhile, staff were reportedly given one day’s notice that 105 asylum seekers were to be housed there following a Covid-19 outbreak at a Dublin facility. No measures were implemented to protect the residents and the local community from infection transmission, nor was there adequate training for staff on navigating the circumstances, struggles and trauma of a vulnerable group of people. Rooms previously occupied by people who tested positive with Covid-19 were given to people who tested negative; this and overcrowding understandably created ample fear as residents appealed for a transfer. One woman who was moved to Cahersiveen told RTÉ Radio 1 that there was a lock on the gate at one stage, preventing the people leaving the centre.

 

On May 15th, the HSE confirmed that they delivered a letter to the centre, enforcing quarantine for all residents for a further two weeks. The stated cause was due to the apparent failure to follow self-isolation rules. Blame was placed on the residents who, like the rest of the country, are acutely aware of guidelines and hygiene requirements. Circumstance overtly disables correct practise of physical distancing, as confirmed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

 

Simon Harris publicly thanked the 160 healthcare workers who live in Direct Provision for their contribution. This discourse is loaded with contradiction, as asylum seekers’ right to work has an absolute ban on employment in public bodies, such as the Civil Service, Local Authorities, or Governmental entities. Access to the Irish labour market is only granted after eight months in the system, permission to work continuing under renewable conditions and barriers, yet financial support is minimal. Our political figures thanking them, while allowing the inhumane system to proceed which disables working for an income, feels moot. The HSE has since laid out a direct provision strategy, which agrees on a need for extensive testing for residents and staff in highly congregated centres, though not in the centres less packed. Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, said implementation of this strategy is crucial and will be closely monitored. 

 

Henderson (IRC) has warned that people living in congregated settings like Direct Provision “will always be vulnerable to outbreaks even when risk decreases in other parts of society”. This socially accepted lack of equality is a human rights crisis. A pandemic is not a great leveller, a blatant fact seen in the statistics; we must publicly change this narrative for improvement. People in marginalised communities have and will suffer the most. A new draft deal between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party states that the Direct Provision system will be ended within the lifetime of the next government. Join the thousands who have signed petitions for change – continue to lobby and email TDs and educate yourself through relevant organisations such as Abolish DP Ireland (Instagram) who lay out recommendations for alternatives. The world is sick of empty promises; DP centres were originally deemed temporary, but many people have been stuck in dire circumstances for years. It is time for that to end.

 

 

Featured photo by John Englart

 

 

Judi Dench, 85, Becomes British Vogue Oldest Cover Star

Judi Dench, 85, Becomes British Vogue Oldest Cover Star

OPINION

Judi Dench, 85, Becomes British Vogue Oldest Cover Star

Mackenzie Ellwood

16th June 2020

 

Beauty has the elasticity of a hair tie. It is stretched and tightened over the decades depending on the trend of the time. Our perception of “what’s hot” is bent and broken daily. Once-fashionable styles are discarded only to return ironically as a bold statement 20 years later, despite the current generations access to old photos documenting why the aforementioned styles were thrown out in the first place. However, the flux of fashion has yielded a sure conclusion: very little is unwaveringly unfashionable. Even lead makeup had a moment @QueenElizabeththeFirst. If matching athleisure tracksuits and low-rise jeans can bounce back, then the elasticity of the fashion band will never slacken.

 

Vogue, meaning ‘style’ in French, has been named the world’s most influential fashion magazine by the New York Times. It rises to meet the times or perhaps forces the times to rise with it, with recent examples standing out. In light of the spread of Covid-19, an edition released in July 2020 was fronted by 3 key workers in British Vogue: a train driver, a midwife, and a supermarket assistant. As of summer 2020, heroic work is the new black.

 

When Judy Dench hit Vogue’s glossy magazine cover in 2019, it made fashion headlines. But why? Was there mention of her Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Shakespeare in Love’? Or the several appearances she made as the first female to play ‘M’ in the James Bond films since 1995? Or even the recently acquired tattoo on her wrist, reading ‘Carpe Diem’ or ‘Seize the Day’? The headlines reeled in admiration at none of these, however. The most dramatic aspect of the actor’s appearance on the cover of this magazine was her age: 85 years old.

 

Youth might be beauty, but age is wisdom and success; and, more to the point in this article, age is money”

The “over-50s” category accounted for 47% of all cosmetic expenditure in the UK in 2019. The so-called ‘grey penny’, is the label given to the sizeable contribution by this category; a name that demonstrates the disregard by fashion firms to the needs of these consumers to see themselves in the products that they are buying. The excuse that ‘youth is beauty’ fails to cut the mustard anymore because evidently, beauty has no borders. Such is the attitude of companies and designers churning out clothing and cosmetics at the speed of cutting-edge fashion trends. As firms scramble to cater for as many categories as possible, the models gracing cover pages of magazines are becoming refreshingly varied in appearance. Society allegedly no longer confines itself to a single idea of beauty and has allowed itself to expand and explore the concept in all colours, shapes, and sizes.

 

Youth might be beauty, but age is wisdom and success; and, more to the point in this article, age is money. Consumers are disillusioned by anti-ageing products sold to them on the faces of 25-year-old models such as Cara Delevingne; it is unrealistic and disheartening to a person to be encouraged to want the impossible. Vogue claims to have been pushing body positivity since 2013, and this would ring true in their photographing of Judi Dench. Looking your age and looking well should not be held up as mutually exclusive.

 

Rather than crowing about the freshness of Vogue’s all-inclusive approach, the fashion industry should look to carpe diem themselves. Instead of refusing to water the age-bracket yielding the most financial fruit, perhaps a new approach of embracing nature in its truest form should take hold. If beauty holds no real bounds, why pretend that this excludes a consumer’s age?

 

Growing old is a beautiful thing in many respects. It should be celebrated as such. It cannot be argued that all aspects of the process are wonderful; a human grows frailer and eyesight fades. But then again, nothing is perfect. Even teenagers get spots.

 

Age is a side-effect of life and to live is one of the few things that will never go out of fashion.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Vogue

 

 

Direct Provision to be Ended – But What about the Right to Work?

Direct Provision to be Ended – But What about the Right to Work?

OPINION

Direct Provision to be Ended: But What about the Right to Work?

Lydia Howard Chevalier

15th June 2020

 

In 2018, Ireland opted into the EU Reception Conditions Directive, which, in theory, gives those seeking international protection the right to work. However, the state has imposed several bureaucratic obstacles for anyone hoping to work under this scheme. Only those who have been in the system for 9 months and who are awaiting a first decision (not an appeal) on their status can apply; even if they are successful, work permits are only valid for 6 months at a time. These pre-conditions make it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to access the labour market, improve their language skills and integrate into Irish society. Despite current government formation talks discussing the abolition of direct provision, remaining restrictions on the right to work suggest that we’re in for another battle.

 

The state’s attitude towards the right of migrants to work in Ireland has been somewhat challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant healthcare workers in Direct Provision centres were called on to volunteer their services (mostly as healthcare assistants in nursing homes) to free up essential frontline workers to deal with the surge in cases. Many migrants have viewed this as a positive opportunity for them to finally contribute to the communities in which they live, and 160 of them were deployed. However, many more have been outspoken about the challenges they face working during a pandemic.

 

“Despite current government formation talks discussing the abolition of direct provision, remaining restrictions on the right to work suggest that we’re in for another battle.

Bulelani Mfaco, a resident in a Co. Clare centre, outlined his concerns in a recent interview with RTÉ: the most frustrating aspect of working is the inability to observe social distancing rules when he returns to his direct provision centre after a shift. He is forced to share a room, communal toilets and showers with at least 18 others. Over 200 people gather in the canteen to receive their daily meals and petty bureaucratic processes impede residents from taking measures to protect themselves, such as taking their meals to their rooms. This is a serious oversight in health and safety and the protective measures for asylum seekers outlined by the Department of Justice are wholly inadequate. Surely there must be a better way to care for these selfless workers who are risking their lives trying to save others. If we reformed, or even abolished direct provision, there would be no need for special isolation units – better living conditions and the right to privacy and space could mitigate any serious outbreak. Direct provision centres risk being overlooked in a similar way to Ireland’s care homes, and this is simply unacceptable.

 

 Fear is a significant feature of any pandemic. Managers of care homes where migrants work are fearful of them bringing the virus from the direct provision centre to the home; there is also fear of the reverse happening. The measures put in place to minimise this are having a detrimental effect on individuals in centres who are already vulnerable. Children cannot attend school and are forced to stay in their cramped bedrooms, and residents’ social contact with the outside world is diminishing. Migrant workers face the uncertainty of being relocated; in recent weeks 600 people have been relocated to facilitate social distancing, with some being told to relocate to centres far away from their workplace.

 

An important point raised by Consultant Microbiologist Dr Martin Cormican during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa outlines our need to focus on what really matters during times of crisis: ‘Fear is contagious, poverty is deadly, Ebola is a virus’. We must not neglect meeting the basic needs of all – by depriving migrants of the basic right to a decent quality of life, we are creating a problem far more serious than the risk any virus could pose. Our fear of COVID-19 is justified; however, we shouldn’t neglect our responsibility to address the well-being of our entire population. Inequality and poverty have far-reaching consequences, especially during a health crisis; evidence suggests that African-American minorities in the US have suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic – the impact of being an underprivileged minority rearing its ugly head. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the ever-present discrimination in our societies and addressing this inequality must be a key factor in any effective pandemic response.

 

” An important point raised by Consultant Microbiologist Dr Martin Cormican during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa outlines our need to focus on what really matters during times of crisis: ‘Fear is contagious, poverty is deadly, Ebola is a virus’”

We must also exercise caution about how we view ‘the other’ in times of crisis. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have recently been made scapegoats after an outbreak was linked to a gay nightclub district in South Korea. Care must be taken not to allow the same to happen to our frontline migrant workers in Ireland; we have already witnessed the devastation caused by scapegoating during the HIV/AIDS epidemic – lessons must be learned.

 

The current pandemic has served as a stark reminder of how deeply connected we all are and provides us with an opportunity to reassess how we treat the most vulnerable in our societies. Migrant healthcare workers can now use their volunteer service as a platform to highlight the poor conditions they have been subjected to. Now is our chance to truly appreciate the value of welcoming migrants into our communities and our workforce by instituting major reform to our reception system. Our government felt it appropriate to call on the services of those in Direct Provision and the Minister has significant discretion in asylum cases. An appropriate show of gratitude could involve providing our migrant community with a sense of security about their place in Irish society, following in the footsteps of Spain and fast-tracking applications for asylum. It is vital that we recognize the value of inclusivity and asylum seekers’ right to security, decent work, good health and well-being, and equality.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Free To Use Sounds

 

 

The Highs and Lows of Online Counselling During COVID-19

The Highs and Lows of Online Counselling During COVID-19

OPINION

The Highs and Lows of Online Counselling During COVID-19

Conor Doyle

13th June 2020

 

There’s been a lot of talk about winners and losers out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the biggest winner, if we adopt this terminology, has been Zoom. ‘Zooming’ and the ‘Zoom quiz’ have become so seamlessly accepted into our culture as a replacement for pre-social distance forms of socialising (the pub). But there is one, less light-hearted use for the online video chatting platform, for which the transition has been less smooth. Counselling and psychotherapy services have been moved online, though met with some reluctance on the part of both counsellors and clients. 

 

Like many with experience of face to face counselling, I initially baulked at the suggestion of online counselling. The thought of shouting my innermost insecurities at a buffering, floating head on my laptop, while my family sat in the next room, would surely serve to raise my stress and anxiety rather than diminish them. But I questioned my preconceived notions. Why was I dismissive? I also wondered, are there others like me? Perhaps there are people seriously suffering in silence out of reluctance to try a new form of counselling. I spoke to counsellors at the forefront of this new and novel practice to find out.

 

Despite the seriousness of Joe Heffernan’s counselling profession in Cork, and the solemn situation about which we were speaking, our conversation was extremely pleasant – and not merely because of the chance to speak to someone other than my family or the dog. He had a sort of classically loud Cork enthusiasm and retained a jocular irreverence despite the dour topic.

 

It seems (with lockdown restrictions) like a trip to some exotic location to be able to go to the local Supervalu to buy a packet of biscuits!

 

Joe noted that it was “without doubt” a strange time for peoples’ mental health.

 

As time goes on, resilience is being eroded. One client I had just today told me she was ‘feeling extremely frustrated and tired of it all’. She’s looking after her husband who’s not well and her 4 children. We’re all very used to hearing sayings like ‘one day at a time’ and ‘don’t focus on the things you cannot change’. But when it goes on and on and on then one begins to doubt one’s resilience to hold up”

 

It is indeed a  strange time for people’s mental health, and in conjunction, counselling as a practice is facing a strange transition. The practice of online counselling is, for most, novel. One of the main concerns for both counsellor and client is the logistics of conducting counselling online.

 

Traditionally I would have skyped or zoomed with a very large head. A lot of the papers noted that this was potentially detrimental. It could be off-putting. You never see your counsellor or client that close up.

Many important aspects of face to face counselling are taken away when ‘Zooming’ or talking over the phone. The use of non-verbal cues; facial expressions, body language, noting both the time and manner of arrival to the session, nuances in tone of voice, to name a few. All the counsellors I spoke with, accepted that this vital part of their practice, was now largely gone. Ian O’Grady, chartered counselling psychologist and past president of the Psychological Society of Ireland, noted another logistical issue.

 

Traditionally I would have skyped or zoomed with a very large head. A lot of the papers noted that this was potentially detrimental. It could be off-putting. You never see your counsellor or client that close up. So I quickly invested in a stand-alone microphone and lighting which allows me to sit further back from my computer and be seen from the waist up.”

 

That’s my floating head fears abated, then. Ian struck me as extremely proactive in his approach to online counselling. It struck me that he didn’t see online counselling as something he was simply resigned to until face to face was legal again. He was embracing it. He’d read much of the academic writing, he’d invested in equipment and was dealing with this as a serious aspect of his job. He exuded a confidence and comfortability with both the software and the practice involved in giving counselling remotely, which I can only imagine transmitted itself to his clients. And it seems to be borne out in the numbers too “there’s only 1 or 2 of my clients that I don’t see remotely now”. 

 

Another logistical concern was the issue of people being in the next room. Many of us don’t have the luxury of space in our homes or apartments. Many feel uncomfortable divulging the kind of sensitive information necessary in a counselling session when family, partners or flatmates are sat in the next room or close by. It was a problem flagged by all four  of the counsellors I spoke to. Ray Henry, counsellor and chairperson of the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy had the strangest anecdote in this regard.

 

There was one situation when I went through an entire session with my client, and at the end he says ‘now isn’t that right Mary’. His wife was obviously in the room. And sure what else could I say other than ‘howiye Mary I hope everything is going well!’.”

 

As funny as the ‘Mary’ story is, this is a serious concern for people. It got me thinking, shouldn’t the physical therapy space be a kind of sanctuary, insulated from any stress? For many, home could never provide this sanctuary. It doesn’t require any feat of imagination to conjure up such situations. People in the midst of a divorce with children in the house or houses with toxic parent-child relationships are two that might come to mind. For these, the ‘sanctuary’ of the physical therapeutic environment has been breached. When the stressful environment and the therapeutic environment are one and the same, isn’t the demarcation between stress and therapy blurred?

 

“Many feel uncomfortable divulging the kind of sensitive information necessary in a counselling session when family, partners or flatmates are sat in the next room or close by.”

The message from all the counsellors was that communication was key. They accepted that this could be an issue, and that online counselling was not ideal in certain cases. But with proper communication the issues could be mitigated. All the counsellors noted that the majority of family members were very accommodating. Many clients would book their session in for a time when the house would be empty, maybe while their spouse took their 2k walk, or while their mother did the shopping. Some would even go on a walk, or use a park bench, weather permitting.

 

A worsening problem?

 

Joe Heffernan had noted that peoples’ resolve was faltering. Joe, like the other counsellors I spoke with, acknowledged that the reason a crisis like Covid-19 affects our mental health, is multifaceted. It varies from person to person and can’t be summed up in a couple of sentences. Two main factors kept coming up in my conversations with counsellors, though; Anxiety over the physical health of ourselves and loved ones, and also the toll of social isolation.

 

We are social beings. We have 4 sons living in Cork city that we haven’t seen for the duration of the crisis and that’s extremely tough. It goes against our instincts. One client I have, described other people at the moment as a ticking time bomb. Other people are now potential carriers of a serious illness. We never saw people like that before.”

 

An interesting observation. As he says, it seems to flip one of our most basic instincts on its head. Instead of cherishing social contact and the presence of other human beings, it has turned into a threat. Not only are we cooped up in our own houses, unable to see our friends and loved ones, but the people we do see on the street or in the shop are dehumanised into simply ‘carriers of a disease’. Which can only serve the creeping retreat into our own minds.

 

So, anecdotally there seems to be a worsening mental health crisis. But just how crucial could this time be for mental health? Covid-19 has brought with it large amounts of death, which might intuitively point to negative mental health outcomes. Empirical evidence on this ‘natural disaster’ element of the virus is inconclusive, though. In a 1999 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at communities in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood or hurricane. They found ‘no significant increase in suicide rates’ in the years after. However, these forms of natural disaster don’t include an element of social isolation, which Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard has said, is related to suicide.

 

Where the empirical evidence is stronger however, is in the connection between declining mental health and an economic downturn. The New York Times reported that the increase in suicide rates in the U.S. doubled during the 2008 economic crisis. A study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry noted a correlation between economic crises and suicide. It seems intuitive really, that job losses, which come with financial stress, loss of social standing and potential eviction and displacement would have negative mental repercussions. 

 

“Many adaptations have been made in the wake of the virus. The way we shop, the way we socialise, the way we exercise. Maybe counselling need not be any different.”

And Ireland is facing an economic crisis, at least if you listen to the prominent economic commentators. Unemployment is still at 26.1% due to job losses connected to Covid-19. Andrew Webb, chief economist at Grant Thornton, told the Irish Times this week that ‘there is a growing sense that we are heading for a deep and damaging downturn, with a longer climb back to economic strength than originally hoped’. If indeed this is the case, counselling in whatever form it may come, might be more important than ever.

 

Despite this, almost all the counsellors I spoke with had registered a reduction in clients. Joe Heffernan noted a significant drop in his private clients.

 

Off the top of my head I’d say about 40% of my clients have opted for the online form of counselling. With the other 60% saying ‘No Joe, we’ll meet up when the face to face counselling is back’”.

 

What was interesting however, was the contrast with Joe’s HSE clients – people in Direct Provision – of which about 90% have opted for online counselling. Perhaps due to the scandalous lack of services those in Direct Provision receive from the government,  they’ll take whatever services or help they are offered. Maybe there is something to this pragmatism. Maybe we too, as a whole society need all the help we can get right now. It’s a trying time. There’s been a loss of life, loss of jobs and there’s fear over paying rent. We can’t rely on the usual community supports. We can’t even rely on our friends and family to the same degree. Perhaps it’s time to put pre-conceived notions about the way counselling should be conducted to bed. Ian O’Grady noted that counselling may not even return to the way it was previously, until at least such a time that we have a vaccine.

 

You may have to sit very far from your counsellor. You may have a mask on, your counsellor may have a mask on. There also might be increased stress in relation to being in a location that many people have been in, regardless of how well it’s sanitised.”

 

Many adaptations have been made in the wake of the virus. The way we shop, the way we socialise, the way we exercise. Maybe counselling need not be any different. Particularly at a time when mental health could be at such a precarious juncture. Further, mental health services in this country are already notoriously underfunded, and it may get worse. With inevitable budget cuts coming in the next months, mental health services will be hit and likely, will be one of the first to be hit. Perhaps a further reason to avail of whatever services are available.

 

Of course, people needn’t avail of counselling, in whatever form it comes, if they choose not to. But if there are people suffering in silence, all the counsellors I spoke to encouraged people to try the online version. All counsellors have noted the satisfaction of the vast majority of clients using the service, with almost everyone who did move over, sticking with it. It seems to me that as long as we can remove our very own ‘Mary’s’ from the room, if even for an hour, online counselling is a very viable option.

 

 

With special thanks to Joe Heffernan, Brian Holohan, Ray Henry and Ian O’Grady for their input.

 

 

 

 

Featured photo by skripnikbb