Extreme psychological behavior during a pandemic? Everything has happened before.



Jerry Clayton of TPR recently spoke with Dr. Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Diseases”.

Jerry Clayton: Over the past year and a half, we have seen extreme psychological behaviors from many people facing pandemic paranoia, xenophobia, denial, extreme anxiety and more. But it turns out that everything has already happened. Dr. Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, began writing a book on the phenomenon before covid-19 became mainstream. The book is called The Psychology of Pandemics Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. He is joining us today. Thanks for being here, Dr Taylor.

Steven Taylor: Thank you so much. Jerry.

Clayton: What gave you the idea to start this project?

Taylor: Well, my experience, my clinical work, my research is largely focused on anxiety disorders including health anxiety which is excessive worrying about one’s health. So with that background, in 2018 I started noticing a bunch of interviews with disease experts, medical historians, etc. on predicting the next pandemic. They were questioned in twenty-eight because it was the centenary of the Spanish flu. And so reading these reports in the media, it interested me. And the more I looked at pandemics, the more I realized two things. One is that pandemics are a strongly psychological phenomenon as people’s attitudes and behaviors determine whether viruses become pandemics or not. And second, I realized that no one has ever put it all together in one book discussing various aspects of pandemic psychology.

Clayton: We have seen so many extreme reactions from some during this pandemic. How does that compare to what happened during the Spanish flu?

Taylor: Well, this is remarkable. Pretty much everything that happened during covid-19 has happened before. Panic buying, racism, quack remedies. All of these things happened during the Spanish Flu and other serious pandemics. The big difference between covid-19 and past epidemics is the speed at which things and the extent to which things happen. So, mass protest rallies have taken place in the context of the Spanish Flu before, but they are bigger and louder this time around because of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. that amplifies everything.

Clayton: Can you talk about some of the extreme psychological responses to the pandemic on either side?

Taylor: It’s interesting. Pandemics and I guess other stressful community-wide events tend to conjure extremes in people. So while most of the community, most people are resilient, and most people are doing pretty well with the pandemic, you see extremes. And at one end, the extreme of people who think everything is a joke, who think everything is a hoax, they don’t see the need for the vaccine. And there are often people who spread the infection because they don’t take it seriously. On the other hand, people who are excessively anxious either keep quiet at home or are very worried. They can’t sleep at night because they are so worried about covid and often these are the people who must have had a history of anxiety or emotional issues.

Clayton: What do you think a post-Covid world will look like when it comes to mental health?

Taylor: I think it’s going to be anticlimactic first. People expect the Roaring Twenties mixed with a tsunami of mental health issues. I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic. The Roaring Twenties, hyper sociability will be a bit blip, but it will be disappointing. Most people will bounce back, but they will be a minority of people who will develop persistent psychological issues that will require therapy or some form of assistance. And I think of post-traumatic stress disorder or long term phobias or depression or prolonged grief for people who have lost loved ones. So, yes, there will be lingering psychological issues. So this will be bad news for some people. But I guess the good news is that they will be in the minority. It’s really hard to predict at this point what percentage of people will have problems. It could be 15, 20 percent. Who knows at this point.

Clayton: Dr Steven Taylor, thank you very much for your time today.

Taylor: You’re welcome, Jerry, and thanks for inviting me.

Clayton: Dr. Steven Taylor is Professor and Clinical Psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. The book is titled “The Psychology of the Pandemic Prepares for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Diseases”.

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