These are unique and difficult times. The news is saturated with writing about the adverse impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Australia is no exception. Calls to mental health service Beyond Blue’s helplines have jumped “30% in the past two weeks […] the organisation has launched a dedicated COVID-19 service”. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Patrick McGorry, executive director of mental health research hub Orygen, has even claimed that “the second wave of mental ill health could overshadow the first wave of infection in long-term impact”. In the article, “mental ill health” was characterised using such key words as “social isolation, unemployment, grief, stress […] depression, anxiety, insomnia, alcohol abuse, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder”. That was based on “a review of the evidence published in The Lancet last month”.

Anger may follow from or relate to some of the psychological states mentioned above, like increased stress. However, as a concept, it does not seem as emphasised as ideas of “sadness” or “anxiety’ when Australians think about the mental ill health caused by COVID-19. Certainly, it is difficult to discuss examples of increased irritation and frustration among Australians beyond the anecdotal. After all, anger is a familiar human emotion, not ipso facto a mental illness. Yet if people are more frustrated, aggressive etc. because of COVID-19 it is important to consider to what extent, and why exactly. 

Heightened suspicion

Australians ought to be upset when others fail to social distance. Yet some are suggesting that vigilance has gone too far. Cases of suspicion pepper recent news:

Munn summarised the incidents as “so indicative of the level of discomfort and unease in society at the moment”.

The psychology of anger at COVID-19: displacement

Erin Leyba, Ph.D., summarised the mood well in Psychology Today: “people may be feeling anger about deep losses related to jobs, finances, normalcy, routines, cherished activities, the health of self or of loved ones, or the ability to see friends and family”. Citing the Yale Bereavement Study, she notes that “after a loss, disbelief and yearning often occur first, followed by anger”. (This relates to the DABDA model of grief famously proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, of which “Anger” is the second stage). Leyba discusses “displacement”: a psychological defence mechanism “in which people transfer emotions from the original source to another person or situation”. Her suggestion that “people who don’t follow the rules” will be likely objects of our “displaced” anger seems validated by the above examples, which some might consider “hypervigilance”.

Anger at school teachers

It is acknowledged that many teachers have also been objects of frustration throughout the COVID-19 crisis. NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos stated that “teachers and principals have for quite some time borne all sorts of denigration and attacks from certain elements, certain quarters in our society”. The deputy chief medical officer himself, Paul Kelly, has revealed that his sister, a teacher, phoned him to reveal parents had lashed out at her. Such “lashing out” has stimulated reciprocal anger. On the pressure placed on school teachers throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Australian Education Union NT (AEU NT) president Jarvis Ryan commented “we’re disappointed, we’re angry […] we don’t feel that teachers on the ground are being listened to”. ABC journalist Conor Duffy wrote of Gavrielatos’ comments: “the anger from one of Australia’s most senior education leaders is raw and palpable”.

Increases in domestic violence: a consequence of COVID-19?

Leyba has gone as far as to suggest that shocking increases in reports of domestic violence are attributable to displacements of coronavirus frustration. The Washington Post recently crunched the statistics:

  • In Tunisia, in the first five days after people were ordered to stay in, calls to a hotline for women suffering abuse increased fivefold”
  • Calls to a domestic hotline in Spain have jumped 18%
  • In Cyprus, an official domestic violence hotline reported a 30% increase in calls in the first weeks of stay-at-home measures
  • Domestic Violence NSW in Australia has recorded a 40% increase in requests for court advocacy services in recent weeks

What is also worrying is that Jurgita Pečiūrienė, a gender expert at the European Institute for Gender Equality, notes that “data quantifying the true scale of the increase in domestic violence has been challenging to collect”.

“The quality of available statistics, along with measures taken to respond to the crisis, vary significantly by country and region,” said Heather Barr, co-director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. 

If anything is certain, it is that we must remain as vigilant against the aggression which may result from the stress and confinement of this crisis, as we are against the spread of COVID-19 itself.