Lifelong learning in the time of COVID-19, to defeat mental illness

Millions of people are emotionally suffering as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic: young generations, adults, older people and healthcare providers. A recently released survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, from June 24-30, 2020, adults in the United States reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19: 40.9% of 5470 respondents described an adverse mental or behavioural health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, trauma-related symptoms, new or increased substance use, or thoughts of suicide. The prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms was substantially higher than reported in 2019, and people with pre-existing (clinically diagnosed) psychiatric disorders reported an even higher prevalence of symptoms, compared with those without an established diagnosis. Some psychiatrists declared a mental health pandemic or secondary pandemic amidst the already devastating COVID-19 pandemic. [1]

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing global unemployment figures to rise to unprecedented levels, recent research [2] suggests that two-thirds of workers are actively reacting, using this time to re-evaluate their career choices.

In the same report, 70% of workers said they are considering changing career paths entirely, with just over half driven by the desire to either challenge themselves or learn a new skillset. This also includes healthcare workers, who are not at risk to lose their job during the pandemic, but who wish to enrich their technical background with humanistic assets. This, in particular, related to humanistic science: the proof is the boosting of Masters in Neuroscience, exploring brain function, impact on spoken and written languages, origins and handling of the emotions for building empathy, and as a final aim to promote wellbeing, despite the pandemic.

Many are now considering the value of higher education offers when it comes to lifelong learning, improved skillsets and network opportunities, and also related to personal wellbeing to defeat the mental distress given by the uncertainties not only for the health conditions but for the changes that the pandemic had on our lives. 

But the sun of education keeps on shining as an antidote to unemployment and paralysis of culture. For Academic Education is here again: at least in Italy, on September 2020, another fact that must make us think is the growth in registrations not only in large cities such as Milan and Rome but also in smaller centres. For example, the University of Bergamo, a city significantly hit by the pandemic, has seen an increase of almost 14%.

Surprisingly there is no negative impact of the pandemic, as it was expected in April and May 2020. The Italian newspaper “Sole 24 Ore” confirms a boom in the Universities of Palermo (+ 23% on 2019), Milano-Bicocca (+ 20%) and Pavia (+ 28%). In addition to Padua, whose rector Rosario Rizzuto defined an “exceptional result” to have gone from 15,139 enrolled in September 2019 to 16,883 this year (+ 11.5%), adding:

The plus sign also resides among private universities. Cattolica which, based on the first calculations, records growth in enrollments of 2% (13,006 against 12,761 in 2019), with an increase of 4.5% (4,769 students) for the 59 master’s degrees a5% (8,237 enrolled)). With a distribution between on-site, commuter and off-site students in line with last year. [3] 

However, beyond academic education, there is the compelling need in these harsh times to find “something consolatory” in a culture which goes beyond the drugs use or abuse, dangerously frightening in this 2020. The school of life of Alain De Botton writes:

[…] Our contemporary engagement with culture: on the one hand, we insist on culture’s importance. On the other, we limit what we are meant to do with culture to a relatively polite, restrained and principally academic relationship, at points frowning on those who might treat it more viscerally and emotionally, as if it might be a sophisticated branch of a notorious category: self-help.

Medical Humanities and narrative medicine insist on knowledge and culture of different languages: not only the scientific one, but also the creative and artistic ways of expression. Anyhow, even a poem might be dissected anatomically, so there is s quite “short sighted” wall among science and humanities. This is what narrative medicine stands for, to foster new creativity, to give self-help, to better caring of oneself and the others, and to provide clues for a better understanding of the processes requested in health and illness, whatever the mental or physical illness is like, from a chronic individual condition to a global community disease.

As young generations are teaching us, culture and knowledge are invested time to defend ourselves from crisis, existential damage, and eventually fall. Lifelong learning requires energies at the beginning but gives back strengths, strategies and consolation, especially now in times of change.

Peter Drucker, a XX century humanistic economist and founder of the concept of lifelong learning in workplaces, said

We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.

If this was “a nice thing” to have before the pandemic, now it is a must.





Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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