Which I think generally does history a disservice by simplifying it into a series of league tables. The 17th century Great Plague may have been the most terrifying event since the 14th century Black Death and we’ll have to wait a while before we can make a comparative assessment of the Covid 19 pandemic, although in every case the victims were more concerned with their rapidly failing bodily organs than their place in history.
The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Adrian James, has concluded that the present plague constitutes the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War, which is probably true, although if you take into account the mental health effects of the Holocaust, civilian bombings, widespread famines and the numbers killed in fighting (probably 42 million in the USSR alone), the comparisons with life under Covid19 seems, to at the very least, very tame indeed.
I know, from my childhood, a tiny bit about the connection between mental health and war because where I was brought up in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, there was big Victorian institutional building, maybe a former workhouse, which seemed to specialise in looking after people irreparably damaged by the First World War.
They are all long-dead now but in the 1950s and 60s they were relatively young old men by today’s standards. Some, the legless ones, would get around in contraptions called invalid carriages, which were large, clumsy tricycles driven by hand, electric locomotion being a lifetime away.
There were also, to frighten and fascinate children like me, a number of old men who would walk the streets mumbling or sometimes shouting into nowhere.
I could see they were terribly distressed but the adults reassured me that this was just shell shock (now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), so I forgot about them until Dr James brought up the connection between wars and mental health,
This made me wonder whether the heightened anxiety and feelings of boredom and depression which some of us may presently feel should be lumped together with the sheer terror of total war, or with the immediate suffering and trauma which has resulted from every single one of the thousands and thousands of Covid deaths so far.
I know that some of the illnesses which fall under Dr James’s remit can be ruinous and crippling, but feeling uncomfortable during difficult times is not generally a psychiatric condition, it’s a human one.
And if you think you are suffering as much as someone with a regular physical disease, I can only remind you that symptoms such as disturbed sleeping patterns are nothing compared to diphtheria.