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Social creatures in an anti-social world: Evolutionary psychiatry and COVID-19 (Conf. Presentation)

Last week I attended the Swiss Public Health conference 2021 (live!) in Bern, Switzerland. I gave a presentation introducing a couple of fundamental concepts from evolutionary psychiatry to the audience, quickly considering how they might help understand the mental health effects of the pandemic and lockdown.


The title and abstract are below. As it happened, the presentation deviated slightly from the abstract, partly to reflect recent results - it seems that the mental health effects of the pandemic have been milder than expected! Except for anxiety... however upon reading the anxiety questionnaires (especially the GAD-7) it seems that they weren't designed for the midst of a pandemic. Questions of 'Trouble relaxing?' and 'Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen?' seem particular inappropriate... I also quickly covered the concepts of mismatch and good reasons for bad feelings (taking the title of Randolph Nesse's excellent book to described the less catchily worded concept of 'evolution selects for reproductive success over health').


I was pleased with the openness and engagement of the audience to the ideas laid out. It makes one realise that evolutionary psychiatry won't fall on deaf ears once spoken about loudly enough!



Social creatures in an anti-social world: Evolutionary psychiatry and COVID-19


In this talk I introduce evolutionary psychiatry as a useful paradigm for understanding how the extremely unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and its containment attempts affect mental health, and possible measures it suggests on the road to recovery.

Evolutionary psychiatry seeks to explain mental disorder and distress by referring to human evolution. Not all mental states and traits labelled as psychiatric disorders are simply broken brains; many are tendencies and vulnerabilities related to evolved psychological traits which would have been functional for our ancestors. Natural responses can cause problems in an unnatural world. Modern life is very different to the life of hunter-gatherers – and modern life during the COVID-19 pandemic even more so. The health problems this causes are cases of what evolutionary medicine and psychiatry call ‘mismatch’. Reviewing the relevant evolutionary psychiatry and anthropological literature, I shall outline how evolved psychological responses can become psychiatric disorders given these unusual conditions. For example, humans are innately social animals, the most social of all primates, and recognising this social nature allows us to understand many cases of anxiety and depression – which are natural responses to certain social situations, but are liable to over-activation, especially in unusual modern settings. Few settings are so unusual as the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly lockdown. After tens of millions of years of living in close social groups, this level of social isolation is not only historically unprecedented, but prehistorically unprecedented. Effects on mental health are inevitable, and understandable.


An evolutionary perspective lends useful theoretical foundations for understanding mental health issues and suggests novel solutions. It can be used to be predict high-risk groups for psychological disorder, destigmatise the labels used to describe disorder, and offer novel preventative solutions. Evolutionary perspectives also have implications for optimising the return to normalcy, including methods of encouraging vaccinations and safe behaviour, and preventing persistent mental disorders (especially depression) from curtailing economic recovery. By the end of this talk I aim to have introduced basic concepts from evolutionary psychiatry as a useful tool to understand pandemic mental health and better prepare for the uncertain future.


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