“Returning to normal will be complicated for some people”


“A good part of the population is very robust and able to reorient themselves quickly after difficult times,” says psychotherapist Carola Smolenski. Keystone / Florian Kopp

After two years of pandemic, life before gradually regains its rights. But our social behavior has changed, and especially young people have suffered, warns psychotherapist Carola Smolenski.

This content was published on February 22, 2022 – 14:13

The number of young people being treated by the University’s Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich for suicidal thoughts has increased dramatically during the pandemic. The capacity of specialized psychiatric services for children and young people has reached its limits throughout Switzerland, showing how deep the traces of these two years of crisis are.

Today, with the end of virtually all health measures in Switzerland, we are witnessing a gradual return to normal. What have we learned, what do we need to learn again, and what will be the long-term consequences?

Carola Smolenski, psychotherapist and board member of the Swiss Federation of Psychologists (FSP)External link), describes risks and opportunities in the current situation.

swissinfo.ch: What brands will the pandemic put on us?

Carola Smolensky: Many people have been exposed to constant stress. They have lost a loved one, suffered limitations in their daily personal and professional lives or experienced a sense of loss of control. They then began to feel less and less confident in themselves, also in relation to social contacts.

Some say they have forgotten how to interact with others, meet new acquaintances, give compliments or react to compliments, whether in the private or professional sphere. Others no longer know how to behave with someone at a distance of less than one and a half meters. We need to practice these interactions again and regain confidence in ourselves.

Carola Smolenski, psychotherapist and board member of the Swiss Federation of Psychologists (FSP). © Hanspeter Baertschi

Has the psychological effects of the pandemic not been adequately taken into account?

Basic elements have been overlooked. In addition to the basic needs for eating, drinking and sleeping, there are also psychological needs: to live in a relationship of trust, to have pleasant experiences, to orient and control one’s life, but also to know where one is going, to have feeling that one can influence the course of one’s existence. And experience self-esteem and positive feedback.

And what happens when we can no longer have these experiences?

When one or more basic psychological needs are dissatisfied or violated, repeatedly or over an extended period of time, the hypothesis is that this can destabilize and affect our mental system. And if this situation lasts too long, we become significantly more vulnerable to mental illness.

This theory applies well to the pandemic period we have just experienced because our basic psychological needs have been violated in many areas.

E.g?

The need to have close and trusting relationships. I refer not only to love relationships, but also to friendly relationships and regular, easy and spontaneous exchanges that can take place at work or in leisure time.

Will it be hard to get back to normal?

A good part of the population is very resilient and able to reorient themselves quickly after difficult times. However, it will be difficult for some people. For example, for those who isolated themselves more and more during the pandemic, consciously or unconsciously.

The reasons for this social withdrawal can be several: belonging to a group at risk of becoming infected with coronavirus, unemployment, existential malaise or pre-existing mental illness. People with depression or anxiety may even have enjoyed working from home, as they were less likely to confront their social fears and insecurities. For them, returning to normal can come with particular challenges.

What can be learned from this crisis?

The pandemic has shown us that we need to learn to deal with this feeling of loss of control. And this also applies to a country like Switzerland, which has a stable health system and political situation, where a significant part of the population has economic means and modern technologies.

We have found that we are not able to control everything and that many things can change very quickly. This experience was very shocking and difficult to deal with for many people.

What we have clearly observed as psychotherapists is that the pandemic has made people more aware of their mental health. I hope this trend will continue in the long run.

One of the positive effects of the crisis is therefore that we are more aware of our mental health and that we talk about it more often without feeling ashamed. We are more aware and aware of our own resources, more likely to reinforce them preventively. We also dare to ask for professional help at the right time when we can no longer fend for ourselves.

What effect has the pandemic had on young people?

The term “Covid Generation” will undoubtedly settle permanently in our vocabulary. Despite the limitations, young people have tried to meet their age-specific needs and grow into adults.

The pandemic came while they were developing and testing their autonomy. In this great phase of life, the young people detach themselves from the parental home to experiment with social and romantic relationships. Opportunities that have been greatly reduced in two years.

With what consequences?

Studies clearly show that a good number of young people suffer and fear the future, feel insecure about themselves, have depressive tendencies or even suicidal thoughts.

The topic of mental health will remain in the minds of many teens even after the pandemic is over. This can be an opportunity to lift the taboo that still hangs over mental health issues.

These young people could develop an increased sense of health, self-care and responsibility towards other more vulnerable or older population groups.

Will a generation more united and more aware of global challenges emerge from the crisis?

I do not want to equate the pandemic with a trauma, but there is the therapeutic concept of “post-traumatic growth”: if one has been able to overcome a crisis in an adaptive way, the possibility is great to be able to take something positive from this difficult situation and to get out of it grown, to continue to develop and thus become stronger.

How can young people be supported in this process?

What seems fundamental to me today is to show special attention and solidarity with the younger generation. She urgently needs more freedom, in order to live at least some of her age experiences, which have been limited or non-existent during the pandemic.

It also seems important to me to continue monitoring the mental state of children and young people – including adults – after the restrictions have been lifted. I think our society needs to make sure that there are enough offers of professional help available to all those who find it a challenge to return to normalcy.

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