Interview with Lucyna Kicińska, long-standing coordinator of the Helpline for Children and Youth, coordinator of the Polish Suicidological Society and Luis Alarcon Arias – psychotherapist and president of the Blue Line Association .
Agnieszka Urazińska: Now that we are shut away in our homes, do we have a bigger problem with aggression than before?
Luis Alarcon Arias: There is a lot that would indicate this, because according to our observations from the Blue Line, the curve on domestic violence has been rising recently. It’s even possible to explain it. We’re forced to be around each other. We became prisoners in our own homes. In prisons, people at least have a yard. And we haven’t even had a yard for weeks. After all, each of us needs our own space and we miss this space very much. When we cross the threshold of resistance to penitentiary conditions, tensions increase and conflict appears. Unfortunately, conflicts in our culture are most often solved by force. Where conflict situations already existed, they can be exacerbated.
Where an argument ended with a door slamming, it can now become more violent.
Isolation will have very dangerous consequences for the integrity of families and for people suffering from violence.
Lucyna Kicińska: Even before the pandemic, we had a big problem with violence towards children. During social isolation, houses characterised by violence are witnessing dramas. Children have to stay with the perpetrators all day. They have no place to escape to because they aren’t going to school, can’t meet their peers and can’t run away from home when the trouble starts. Until recently, a young person under the age of 18 could not leave the house unaccompanied by an adult. Due to the epidemic, not only the victim but also the perpetrator cannot leave the house. The latter is also more exposed to stress and frustration during this period. It could heighten their aggression. Children tell us that aggression – mainly verbal – appears even in those houses where it wasn’t present before. But just imagine – there are two children who want to do their homework at the same time, and a parent who has to work. The children argue while the parent has to do their job urgently. Plus, they feel worried about losing their job. And everything is happening in a house of only 38 square meters. Is there a good chance someone will raise their voice?
And what do our relationships look like now?
L. A. A.: The pandemic is a test for relationships. Until recently, apart from our spouse or partner, we had a social base – friends who we could meet and complain to about problems in our relationships. Now, our friends are online, and we’re forced to physically be around the people living in our homes. Many couples will enter into a state of conflict. And this is not a good time to look for compromise because the situation is frustrating and causes anxiety. A lot of problems that we didn’t notice before will become more serious. Where there is no background of affection, love or respect, a break-up may occur. But some relationships, paradoxically, can be strengthened by this difficult situation. It’s where people can count on each other and have mental strength.
L. K.: The problem with peers now is that either they are not there at all, and the child misses them and being with them, or there are peers who the child would not normally want to be so close to who are now on their own computer during online lessons. Peer violence has moved from the real world onto the internet. One student has told me that during remote lessons, when the teacher asks a question, his classmates switch off his microphone. A student who is not accepted by the class confessed that her classmates removed her from the group and she cannot join the class. “That’s not fair,” says a grieving ten-year-old.
And I admit she’s right and I’m sorry about the fact that she doesn’t even have a way to vent this distress now – she can’t go out into the woods and shout or run out into the yard and play with the friends who accept her. There are also children who have practically no relationships, who are without the internet or too tired to speak with their peers. And what would they say anyway? That they work on the farm for 12 hours?
Is it easier to endure isolation in a house with a garden than in a studio apartment?
L. A. A.: It’s certainly more comfortable. But I’ve noticed that coronavirus is very universal – those who are better off are not spared either. Those who have a better financial situation are not handling this well either. Some suffer because they don’t know if they will have enough money to pay their rent, others because they can’t have a luxury holiday. Those who are in worse conditions have objectively bigger problems. But on the emotional level, we are all experiencing frustration.
L. K.: Inequalities can now be even more acute. Before the epidemic, children would leave the house and worry about nothing more than whether their sweatshirts and backpacks were a good enough brand. Now, during an online lesson, they let those, who would not usually be invited, inside their homes all through a web camera. They may, of course, have a house with a pool to show off with. But if they live in ugly interiors, and on top of that, the microphone is on and records a family argument, they are exposed to even more embarrassment and teasing. Such inequalities are now showing very clearly. Where there is a house with a garden and each child has their own computer, it’s easier to stand it and to maintain a good mood, than in an old tenement without a toilet or a laptop – living in poverty. Before the pandemic, a small space wasn’t as much of problem as it is now. There was school, work and the outdoors. The whole family, all of us, spent about two hours together before bedtime.
And now it’s 24 hours a day, for many weeks now. The walls are starting to crush us.
Are we bored in isolation?
L. A. A.: I know people who have started doing things they didn’t have time for before. More people have definitely started reading. Finally, there are some good results of this virus! It all depends on how we channel this boredom. We can sink deeper and deeper into it and it will become ever darker. Another thing is that a great number of people are now working at full speed from home. And they have neither the time for being bored or for their own lives. They say they’ve never worked so much in their lives. I won’t criticise. Such work can keep you going. As long as it doesn’t have a destructive effect on your life, if it gives you satisfaction – that’s great.
L. K.: When I worked at the children’s helpline, there were times when a child would call and say “I’m bored”. Or 13-year-old girls would ask for ideas for birthday party fun. They would say it used to be cooler because there were entertainers at children’s parties. It would be embarrassing for teenagers but they don’t know how to organise their own time. If we don’t help children find their passion when they are little, we end up with bored teenagers. This shows clearly now that some people have more time to manage. A bored young person is unhappy and even more lost.
Are we scared?
L. A. A.: We live in fear of the future – not just the material one. I’ve noticed that people try not to talk about what it’s going to be like in the future. They avoid the subject. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. People need hope – it’s raining today but tomorrow the sun will come out. And we don’t know when the epidemic will end and what kind of world it will leave us. Outside the window there is beautiful weather that does not fit this situation. And there is a huge fear inside us of whether we will stay healthy, lose our loved ones, pay off the loan, or lose our jobs... The coronavirus has attacked the core of social life.
L. K.: During the pandemic we talk a lot about adult fears but children live in fear too. They hear the same terrifying news in the media as we, the adults, do. They see their parents off balance.
If mum is a hairdresser and hasn’t worked for the second month in a row, you talk about it at home. The child hears that there’s no money or that there isn’t going to be any money soon.
In theory, mum is in a better situation. She can do something. A child can’t do anything. Their world is on shaky ground. They hear there will be no holiday trip and no summer camp. All this makes them angry, frustrated and anxious. There are also children who feel much better at home than they do at school, they take remote learning very well and they function better now, have finally stopped being scared. But this is a minority.
What is happening to our psyche?
L. A. A.: Many people can’t cope. We react with aggression, violence, withdrawal and a depressed mood. Addictions are being nursed. Psychoactive substances – drugs and alcohol – help people stop worrying. For at least a moment, they make the world look the way we want it to look. I’m afraid that in two months or so there will be a lot more people struggling with substance abuse or addiction than there are now.
L. K.: Children and adolescents can experience intensified depression, in particular if it has been masked until now. Unfortunately, it may be more difficult for the people close to the child to see it at the moment. Parents, although physically close to the child around the clock, are often preoccupied with their own problems, home office and surviving and are not focused on observing the child. And school is too far away. The camera can be turned off and no tears show. Through a communicator, it will also take peers more time to notice that something is wrong. And things are going wrong. Teenagers are having catastrophic thoughts: we have a climate catastrophe, the Biebrza is burning and the coronavirus is here. One teenage girl told me: “Miss, the world is giving us the middle finger”. Distorted thoughts keep coming back in a never-ending sequence in the heads of the teenagers: “Why live, why fight if everything is going to collapse anyway? And not in some distant future; the virus will kill us all right now”. Many adults think the same way, but children feel deeper, they let different problems get to them more easily.
Adolescents have a kind of impulsiveness associated with the way an immature, young brain works. It was bad already before the pandemic: 7 percent of people between 13 and 17 years of age declared that they had attempted suicide.
That amounts to a quarter of a million children in Poland! And now it can get even worse. If we do not take immediate action on multiple levels, soon we can expect a wave of suicides and depression.
Do we feel lonely?
L. A. A.: I’m most worried about those who were alone before the pandemic. I’m thinking of the elderly who don’t have access to computers, tablets or smartphones. And now they’ve lost the opportunity to meet people. A large number of such people will certainly experience a serious crisis – the elderly are a high-risk group in terms of infection, but also from a psychological point of view.
L. K.: Children are talking about great loneliness. Even though they have their relatives close at hand. “As if I were living with a stranger,” a teenage girl told me a few days ago. That doesn’t have to mean that the parent is bad. Maybe they didn’t manage to build a bond. Or maybe they never told the child: “come to me if you have a problem” or “you’re important” because they had thought the child knew it.
What can we do to get hurt as little as possible?
L. A. A.: Talk to people. We can’t meet and we can’t touch each other. But this is a time in which we can use technology. A conversation will make us no longer feel alone in this terrible situation. This is the time when you don’t have to talk about anything big: “How did you sleep?”, “Well, I’m good too.” Or: “What are you doing?”, “Nothing?”, “Nothing interesting here either”. It can be a conversation about nothing. But you have to communicate. In order not to bury yourself in a hole. To remember that there are people waiting somewhere. And if someone needs to talk to a professional – we’re still here, even though we’re now online. The Blue Line offers free remote visits and consultations. It is worth looking for the help of experts.
L. K.: A conversation is the best method. And let’s not try to behave as if this was an ordinary situation. It’s not. Let’s tell the children, let them know too, that this is not the time to do everything at the same capacity as before the pandemic. A new one hundred percent level must be established, one which is appropriate to the new conditions. If the child complains that the mother works too much, then instead of: “:eave me alone, that’s life,” let’s say: “You’re right, this isn’t a normal situation. We all live a different way now. I’m trying to find my place in all this. Why don’t we talk about it?” It is worth adapting family life to the new reality; take out some board games or make a schedule of films for the whole family to watch in the evenings over home-made popcorn. Take care of the daily routine. Take a good look at the young person who lives with us as now you can do it up close.
Let’s pay attention to ourselves and to others
A pandemic and forced isolation is a time in which many of us will need support.
It’s a test of not just our strength and resilience, but also our empathy. Let’s remember, we’re not made of steel. Let’s take care of ourselves first, so that we can support others.
If we feel we have a problem handling things, let’s not be ashamed to look for help. Even in this difficult time, there are institutions and people who will give it to us.
Let us also pay attention to those who are not doing well – those from our family and those a little further away: friends and neighbours. Maybe right behind the wall someone is struggling with difficulties they cannot overcome.
Let’s be supportive – let’s suggest that there are places and specialists who can help one survive even the worst time.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about the coronovirus pandemic for you.
They are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities. They work on the ground, reporting from hospitals and airports.
We have decided to open online access to our news stories and special guides focused on the issue of public health, for free.
The access to information should be equal for all.
Materiał promocyjny partnera