The Psychology of the Covid Party

How Depression Can Lead to Risky Behavior

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Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels — Canva.com

For those of us who count ourselves lucky, those first two weeks of March weren’t bad. There was a lot of sourdough baking, Netflix bingeing and jokes about babies born in nine months that would be named COVID-19 or Quarantina. Then the jokes got a little darker and perhaps more accurate: “Half of us are going to come out of this gourmet cooks— the other half will be alcoholics.” Zoom birthday parties were still a novelty in late March and early April. By the end of April, people were looking for alternatives: car parade parties with cheery signs and horn honking. Google Classroom and Zoom were getting old, fast. When high school juniors nationwide became wallflowers at their canceled proms, the depression began. Parents joined them when they realized that middle name they’d agonized over was not going to be read as their senior proudly marched across the graduation stage. Memorial Day hit, it was sunny — and, of course, we’d all been told that the warm, sunny weather would kill the virus. And we believe everything we’re told, right? At least, if it comes from our preferred news source and not that fake news they’re peddling out there on those other channels. So the governors began opening.

Have you ever been on a severely restrictive diet? One of those no/low carb diets? What’s the first thing you do when you go off the diet? Now, true, there are people that say, “I continue my exercise regime and, in fact, step it up to balance out the occasional banana or carrot I will now eat.” But the truth of the matter is that many of us get a juicy hamburger — bun and all, and we eat it, slapping our spouse’s hand away as s/he asks for a fry. It’s human nature. And what happens as a result? We gain the weight back.

Human nature is important to keep in mind as we struggle through this time. Our country is like a group of people struggling through a diet and trying to reach the promised land called “maintenance.” So as we struggled to go off of our severe “diet” or lockdown, some governors had a controlled, cautious method. Like those maintenance dieters who continue running and gradually introduce bananas, carrots and see what happens, then introduce legumes, and finally work their way up to whole grains, some governors introduced a very gradual form of opening. Others, like those of us who go off the diet and head straight for Doritos and Oreos, flipped the switch and opened the indoor bars right away. The results were just about exactly what one would expect.

On August 15, the Los Angeles Times reported that over 600,000 people had COVID-19 in California. We are currently at over 140,000 deaths nationwide and there are fears of the United States surpassing 200,000 deaths by Labor Day.

Over the summer, people were shocked to see crowded beaches with no masks in sight, bars packed full of maskless revelers, public pools at capacity, and soon the mask wars began. As with most American political fights, it began on social media but soon spilled into the grocery stores. In Michigan, a man was killed after he asked another man to wear a mask. In Georgia, the governor said he was going to sue the mayor of Atlanta for imposing a mask requirement. Those of us in states that had been early hotspots wore the masks. Those of us whose states hadn’t been as problematic in the early months did not. And, of course, there were those who still considered the whole thing a hoax.

Humans are social beings. We are used to being out of the house, free-range. March to May was a long time to be inside. So once free, it’s only human nature — especially with the sunshine and blue skies — to want to live a little.

Then came the COVID parties.

COVID parties? asked our grandchildren, wide-eyed. You mean people went to parties knowing full well that someone had COVID-19 and the goal of the party was to break all social distancing rules, catch the disease and win a cash prize?

Yep.

It’s a perfect storm. While New York and Boston were facing their surges, Montana wasn’t feeling it. Yet they were closed down. The trolls started fueling the fire of the hoax theories. But beyond that, here’s the scientific truth that many of us might be ignoring:

Psychologists say there’s a strong relationship between depression and risky behaviors. According to the Mayo Clinic, men with depression have a tendency toward risky behavior, such as reckless driving. Under “normal” circumstances, the ATS journal reports that “risk-taking behavior is common among adolescents and young adults and may be accompanied by depression.” The journal says, “Psychologically distressed adolescents are more likely to smoke (3). A telephone survey of 4,023 families found that substance abuse and dependence were associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive episode among adolescent girls and boys (4).” The study goes on to say that risk taking also occurs among young people with chronic illness.

The National Institute of Health released a similar finding in 2006. They found that for girls, “any risk activity, no matter how modest in degree, was associated with an increased risk of symptoms of depression.” The data was similar among boys. “Most, but not all risk profiles were associated with a greater likelihood of such symptoms, compared to abstainers.”

Rachel K. DiLima, from the Department of Psychology at Shepherd University, wrote an article in 2018 entitled Risky Behavior: The Roles of Depression, Openness to Experience, and Coping. DiLimi’s conclusion:

“As the results from the present study indicate, those with depressive symptoms may choose to endanger themselves in order to deal with their emotions…It is therefore important for those close to these individuals, such as family, friends, or clinicians, to notice when depressive symptoms increase. It is in those moments that a reminder of more adaptive ways of coping with emotions, such as problem-focused coping, may prevent unnecessary risk before it occurs, potentially saving individuals from irreversible harm.”

Many of us are worried about what will happen when schools open. Already we’re seeing schools find themselves needing to shut down on day one because of positive COVID tests. But more concerning is this: over the last few years we’ve become aware that today’s adolescents face more anxiety and depression than ever before. Classwork, college entrance exams, social media, school-shootings… Now add in a deadly disease that has no cure, no vaccine and is more powerful than any snowstorm such that it can close down even the fun parts of school and what to these kids have left?

It’s no wonder that in a traumatized nation, there are some folks who would risk opening schools in unsafe conditions just to be able to see their kid come home from school, throw the backpack on the carpet, and dish about the latest gossip. Oh, who are we kidding. Even one of those “How was school?” “Fine.” “What’d you do?” “Nothing.” conversations would suffice at this point.

Boston University is rolling out a student-created slogan to help prevent risky decisions that students might make regarding COVID safety. Their slogan is “F*ck It Won’t Cut It.” The idea is there will be times a student may be tempted to smuggle his or her SO into the dorm, or have a “large gathering.” But one little slip can have an impact on the health of the whole floor — or a huge part of the student body.

It’s frustrating. We’ve canceled vacations, concerts, plays, weddings and funerals. We’ve done our part, and we want our reward. And we’re willing to take a risk just to feel a little bit normal again.

On a diet, we can slip up and get back on track. But with Covid, we can’t let our depression get the better of us. We have to continue to manage risk — yes, getting into a car under or flying in a plane under normal circumstances is risky. But we have to remember that if we’ve worked this hard and sacrificed so much, why not see it all the way through so we can live the lives we want when we’re on the other side of this thing?

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