As the national obsession with quarantine hotels rages on, my own family is about to have a personal experience with it. My husband, who has been deployed overseas for the last six months, is due to return home to New Zealand. And I'm worried for what awaits him.
Generally, when a soldier comes back from a deployment to a war zone, the first few weeks involve a series of psychological debriefs to ensure your mental health is okay. It's an insurance policy to find out if you're prepared to re-enter general society. This time around, my husband's "welcome home" and "thanks for your service" will be two weeks of jail-like solitude – probably in a beige-walled hotel in Rotorua by the way things are currently looking. Perhaps he should have chosen to be a diplomat, given the perks at Hotel SO.
This presents a bit of a liability for the New Zealand Government. My husband – or any of his colleagues returning home with him – could be experiencing stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, PTSD, or even something like claustrophobia – given that they've already been living in a 20-foot shipping container for half of 2020. They've been in a warzone. Who would blame them if they were worried about being locked in a small room? Or not having a window to open? And about the effects of 14 days without exercise or anything to do? That's a lot of time alone with one's thoughts. Quite the hazard, don't you think?
Mind you, my husband is someone trained in "Conduct After Capture", which is what used to be called Resistance to Interrogation. This is the intense multi-day simulation through the rigours of captivity and mental and physical exploitation by captors. He should, realistically, be well prepared for managed isolation in a four-star hotel.
This brings me to the point of this week's column. Nobody seems to be all that concerned with the mental health of all the other returning Kiwis in quarantine hotels. We've branded the recent escapees as "selfish" without comprehending the intensity of what is, effectively, captivity.
Much has been written about the mental health of animals in captivity in zoos. When big cats like lions and tigers, for example, live "backyard" lives instead of being in the wild, they begin to exhibit several concerning behaviours. When distressed, they begin to pace. They start over-grooming themselves, over-chewing non-food objects, and self-mutilating … all symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These behaviours are, in fact, calls for help for the big cats' anxiety and depression they suffer during their lock-up.
For humans, too, the experience of captivity is completely unnatural. We are wild animals just like lions and tigers. So, when forced into a small room for a significant amount of time, any preparedness could be completely moot. Simply telling yourself "I knew what I signed up for" will not remove the propensity for negative human emotions to take over whilst in quarantine. Anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours are bound to appear in captive people. Because it's in our nature to be free.
I know what you're thinking. "It's just two weeks". Managed isolation is not actual imprisonment, where – according to Corrections – 91 per cent of inmates experience lifelong mental health disorders. But when you're someone who is already in a vulnerable state – as many returning New Zealanders will be, given the state of the rest of the world and what they've been through – two weeks can be a really long time.
You think the Government looks exposed to public scrutiny now with its ongoing quarantine strategy? Imagine if there was a suicide in managed isolation. Or a drug overdose because somebody had something sneaked in to help them cope. This doesn't seem farfetched in an environment where time and moderation seem to dissolve away.
There's one solution here. Daily psychological support is a must for every Kiwi who goes into a quarantine hotel. I don't care if it's Zoom therapy or just a daily phone call – a mental health professional needs to be checking up on those we are placing in unrelenting isolation.
New Zealand already has the highest rate of male suicide in the world because we hate talking about our feelings. To get through captivity-like managed isolation we probably need a more routine approach than "just ask for help if you need to".
My husband needs it. Old mate who fled to Countdown for beers probably needed it too, and so would the person in their 60s who ended up knocking on neighbouring properties' doors. As a country, we have been calling these people "reckless" and directing our national fury towards them. None of us has stopped to think that maybe their actions were a desperate cry for help.