19 March 2020

COVID-19, Therapy and Existentialism

We are living in difficult times. The media is full of problematic COVID-19 stories. The closures of countries, the restriction of movement, the possibility of us all staying home isolated for weeks on end, to say nothing of the fear of death, are considerations that rob us of stability and cause us to pause or panic.

Thoughtful commentators advise us that the issue of COVID-19 will have a negative impact on the mental health of many citizens. The suggestions are that people will struggle with the outcomes of this dreadful virus, and professional help may be required to assist people to cope with the trauma involved.

One can only pray that when vulnerable people are seeking assistance with their concerns, that they are not met with the latest ‘evidence-based practice’, the latest protocols for eradication of depression and anxiety, or some disastrous trauma treatment protocol.

That might sound outrageous…but bear with me. As human beings, we live as if we are in control of our lives. As if we know what will happen and are clever enough to predict and pre-empt the next possible move. Typically, we live comfortable “first-world” lives, aided and abetted by the most rigorous of psychological defenses, and fantasize that we are living the lives we choose.

Enter Existentialism…that gorgeous beast of a philosophy that found its voice as the world was torn apart by World War II — a time when all that seemed sensible and reasonable was laid to waste and the very essence of existence was exposed. A time of unknown issues and brutal contingencies that demanded the attention of all.

The sad truth is…we are fragile creatures and are subject to “necessity, chance and irreversibility”. We are often reminded that the universe has a mind of its own as we meet accidents, illnesses, heartaches, losses, the compromised experiences of loved ones, and “simple twists of fate” that rob us of our delusions that we are in control.

Irvin Yalom, the great existential psychotherapist, is fond of quoting the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, about the ultimate concerns of life — “death, isolation, freedom and meaning”.

An observant therapist knows that these themes exist in every therapeutic conversation. How much more so in this difficult time?

While the threat of COVID-19 is accompanied by a host of compromises for self and others — loss of freedom, increasing isolation, the spectre of death, and, “what on earth is the meaning of this?” —  it is also a radical opportunity to reevaluate what really matters in your own life, and to witness what matters in the lives of others.

It is my sincere hope that those who experience deep distress from the problems that confront us at this time will find brave therapists…unflinching presences…who are prepared to sit with them and, together in vulnerability and courage, bear witness to the human condition.

Paul B. Gibney Ph.D.

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