Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP)

Definition: A mental health problem in which a caregiver makes up or causes an illness or injury in a person under his or her care, such as a child, an elderly adult, or a person who has a disability. Because vulnerable people are the victims, MSBP is a form of child abuse or elder abuse.

Stockholm syndrome

Definition: A psychological response. It occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers. This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse.

One of the main symptoms developed by people who live with an alcoholic parent is a difficulty or inability to have trust in that person.

When you grow up in an atmosphere where denial, lies and secrecy are the norm, children of alcoholics can develop serious trust issues in adulthood because they have learned from the broken promises of the past that trust will eventually backfire on them.

Let me make myself crystal clear here regarding alcoholism and alcohol abuse: alcoholism is a powerful, baffling and cunning addiction. It’s devastating for everyone – the alcoholic, the partner and children, friends and colleagues. 

I have enormous compassion for anyone battling this addiction and enormous respect for those who face it through any form of recovery for it.  I work with recovering alcoholics and I also work with the now-adult children of alcoholics who grew up in a home of addiction.

Make no mistake – I’m painfully aware of the devastation alcoholism wreaks. 

Yet in many ways, this government has now begun to behave like an alcoholic parent, and we have become the children at the centre of its abuse. And it’s downright scary.

There are times when it feels very much like we’re being held against our will as an endless stream of flaky ‘statistics’ and inept testing combine to create a narrative that’s thin on substance and fat on control.

Like the child of an alcoholic parent, we are coerced and cajoled into pretending everything is okay – Eat Out to Help Out and ‘Go back to work’ – only for the inevitable U-turn to plunge us back into the anxious reality of lockdown.

If we don’t comply with the evidence-lite strategy we are bullied and shamed into believing we are to blame for the pandemic, that our selfish ambition to be able to live lives that are as normal as possible will kill those closest to us, that we are ignorant Covid-deniers.

Let’s get one thing straight here and now. Covid-19 is real. It exists. It’s serious. Only the most foolish would deny that.

But does the tangible provable risk justify the extreme response? Does the evidence exist to support the blanket Munchausen by proxy strategy that one way or another turns us all into Covid victims? Does it justify the unquestioning and wholehearted support of Government strategy that feels more and more like a mass episode of Stockholm syndrome with every passing day?

With hindsight it’s easy to see where we might have done things differently to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Maybe we should have gone into lockdown earlier. Maybe we should have closed our borders sooner. Maybe we should have insisted on mask-wearing immediately.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The negative impact of not doing things sooner or later, quicker or slower earlier this year was extraordinary. Businesses failed, people lost their jobs and income, and critical health services were compromised as NHS resources were diverted to deal with demand that – as the empty Nightingale Hospital standing silently sentinel proved – simply never materialised.

But, hard though it will be to accept for many of those who have been scarred in some way by the virus and the Government’s response to it, we can at least in part empathise.

No one really knew what we were or weren’t dealing with until it was much too late, and so a reluctance to do some things and a hunger to do others can in some ways be understood, even if it’s hard to accept.

Not so this time, as we make our way through the first week of this lockdown. Because this time the hindsight we developed should have served as the foresight we needed to get a grip of the second spike.

Yet knowing what they do about the catastrophic economic and mental health impact that shutting down the country will have on us all, Boris Johnson and his government have instead chosen to plunge us into another month-long abyss of isolation.

It’s a decision taken on the frankly sketchy advice of a very narrow panel of so-called health experts who seem more or less incapable of agreeing with each other on the best way to deal with the virus.

Before the pandemic, one in 5 people in the UK admitted to having considered suicide. One in four families worldwide has a family member who suffers with a serious or severe mental health disorder. One in six adults claimed to have experienced depression or anxiety in the previous 7 days.

We were already in the middles of the biggest global mental health pandemic imaginable. It has become exponentially worse. Poor physical health, isolation and financial worries are the key triggers for depression. We have seen all of them in abundance over the last seven months.

We’re told the current lockdown is a ‘firebreak’, a measure intended to deprive the virus of sustenance. Like an alcoholic parent, the government behaves with an inconsistency that bedevils the possibility of trust.

Just who does Mr Johnson think he’s kidding? When two of his pet rats – the sneering architects of doom who have overseen rampant hysteria and the decimation of livelihoods – jump ship following a reported power struggle within 10 Downing Street, how are we to trust him or anything that comes from his mouth?

When two Tory front benchers – first Gove, then Hancock – break ranks within a week to contradict their boss and tell us that even though the Prime Minister has said the lockdown will end on December 2nd it could go on for much longer, how do we attach any credibility to anything we are told?

When a former front bench Government minister says the Cabinet is ‘hopeful of having more of a say in Government strategy’ now Cummings and co. have gone to spend the proceeds of their calamitous policies, how we can do anything other than ask who in God’s name has been governing us for the past seven months or more?

Like a marriage between two alcoholics, the marriage of Cummings and Johnson lies in tatters, the mental health and financial security of hundreds of thousands of people lying in its wake, gasping their last breaths.

Johnson leads a government that makes promises it can’t possibly be sure it will keep, offers directions that seem to have no root in sense or logic, says one thing under the intoxication of ‘science’, only to say something completely different tomorrow.

It brandishes the stick of threat (on the spot fines for lockdown rebels), guilt (we’re all going to kill other people if we don’t follow the new evidence-lite rules) and ruin, whilst simultaneously offering the carrot of an extended furlough, a Christmas with fewer if any restrictions, a tangible end to the pandemic, only to be plunged back in come January.

And in the process it makes us hostages to a rule of law that lacks true scrutiny and oversight, that lacks the weight of compelling scientific evidence, that lacks any empathy for the financial, economic and mental health devastation that will be left in its wake.

Half the nation now follows these directives with the alacrity of conversion that is almost religious – an alarming transition to a form of Stockholm Syndrome that is necessary for the measures to be upheld – whilst the rest of us stand in furious objection to the march of totalitarianism that threatens to overwhelm and devour our civil liberties, livelihoods and mental health.

And as if in counterpoint to the severity of the situation in which we find ourselves, there is the syncopation of the bizarre as we see the introduction of the spot-checking Covid police, the relaxation of the travel embargo for those who want to commit the currently illegal act of assisted dying abroad, the you-can-play-golf-with-a-friend-wait-no-you-can’t-play-golf-with-a-friend advice of the Conservative front bench and apparently deserted Covid testing centres the length and breadth of the country.

If the Government truly believes lockdown is the right approach – and I don’t believe it is – then logic compels it to shut everything down. If lockdown isn’t right, then shut nothing down.

But this one-foot-in-both-camps approach of locking down one part of society and then allowing it to interact with another, unrestricted part makes no sense at all.

I specialise in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is governed by four primary survival defences: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. 

All of those responses are vital for our emotional and physical safety. We use ‘fight’ to stand our ground. We use ‘flight’ to act quickly and decisively and escape danger. Freeze allows us to stop and make rational decisions about what to do next. Fawn gives us the tools to calm the situation down and find agreement and reason. 

But when we’re put under chronic and relentless stress such as the current lockdown, we risk our nervous systems becoming get stuck in fight or flight mode (on), or stuck in freeze or fawn (off). 

Most people in the UK are stuck in one of these trauma defence responses right now. It’s nothing new, and in fact I wrote about it in my previous blog, but the problem is they’ve been stuck since March. 

In his book Complex PTSD – From Surviving to Thriving, leading psychotherapist Pete Walker talks of the over-reliance on the four trauma responses by those who are repetitively traumatized in childhood and how this leads to the emotional impoverishment of life. 

Whilst Walker’s text is primarily aimed at children, the responses to the Covid pandemic mean adults, too, are now experiencing the same phenomena through constantly changing restrictions and rules, job losses, uncertainty, impacted relationships, the loss of homes, the anxiety of children, looming poverty or financial hardship, enforced loneliness and the removal of control and choice.

Of these four responses it is fawn that I fear most. I see a nation acquiescing to a confused and bewildered government as a child would to a drunken parent who has long been without all their faculties.

On its own, this is a problem. But without any exit plan or believable reassurance from the government, it is a crisis.

2.9 million mostly self-employed people are excluded from any government support yet are still being reminded to pay their income tax by the end of January. Suicide rates among excluded communities are rising. Use of food banks is escalating. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the children yet 

Any therapist worth their salt, and especially a hypnotherapist with a very clear understanding of the subconscious mind, knows just how ‘installing’ a trauma works.

Take a young and tender psyche and shock it enough times with a repetitive message, and what do you have?

Anxiety, OCD, depression, negative self-belief, negative and possibly dangerous perceptions about the world and others.

Children’s charities are now dealing with Covid PTSD. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When the Health Secretary tells them they could kill granny, what should be their response? Apart from directly undermining the decision to send children back to school, it paints every child as a potential murderer or monster.

When the Government tells us life will never be the same again, it takes away a reason for living and erodes our connection with the world and with each other.

Recently, I was asked to play an active role in the work of Recovery – a collaboration of people from all walks of life, all political persuasions, all creeds – to lobby the Government for a more considered and reasonable approach to managing the pandemic.

I am honoured to be a member of the mental health committee for the group and here you can find out more about what Recovery does and the 5 Reasonable Demands it is making. My purpose in being part of this group is to bring reason, logic and – most importantly – proportionality to the Government’s strategy.

But the confusing data, lack of trust in Government policy and the blinkered focus on Covid to the exclusion of everything else is in danger destroying lives – and we are only at the edge of the precipice 

When MPs and high ranking civil servants can’t follow their own rules or, in the case of Michael Gove last week, don’t actually appear to understand those rules, how are we supposed to believe they know what they’re doing, never mind trust the integrity of their decision-making?

I am now treating people who had no underlying anxiety or depression issues prior to March. I am treating kids with newly-developed OCD, who see other children as a contagion, who are terrified mummy and daddy are going to die.

Children, in other words, who are being forced to skip their childhood in under the weight of adult fear.

Like a domineering and belligerent alcoholic parent, the likes of Matt Hancock rail against anyone with independent thought, insisting that Covid-19, not Government policy, is responsible for our mental health issues.

His Mini-Me Nadine Dorries – that renowned bandwagon-jumper – takes a more invidious approach, using minimisation and denial to counter hard evidence (the like of which Professor Chris Whitty and his Government lapdogs have been conspicuously devoid) to denounce the very notion of a gargantuan Covid-related mental health crisis.

The measures we have implemented in the last 10 days are like a voracious and fast metastasising cancer. They consume common sense. They erode mental health to dangerous degrees. They are unaccountable. And they appear to have no cure.

Good government is about selflessly doing what is in the interests of those whom that government represents and affects.

We all hope an alcoholic parent this harmful and this dangerous would never escape real scrutiny. Would never be allowed to care for a child. Would never be trusted to safeguard the mental and physical health of a fellow human being.

How long must we wait and how much more damage must be done in the name of ‘protecting’ us before responsibility for our welfare is forcibly removed from Boris Johnson and his self-serving cronies?

Just as the child of an alcoholic parent or a deeply dysfunctional parent must begin the painful yet necessary  process to see them with utter clarity, we must now do the same with our Government and call out what we see.      

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About Zoë Clews

Zoë Clews is the founder of Zoë Clews & Associates and is one of the most successful and sought-after hypnotherapists working in the UK today. She has spent the last 17 years providing exclusive, highly-effective hypnotherapy treatment to a clientele that includes figures in the public eye, high net worth individuals and professionals at the top of their careers. An expert in all forms of hypnotherapy treatment, Zoë is a specialist in issues relating to anxiety, trauma, self-esteem and confidence. She works with nine Associates who are experts in their own fields and handpicked for their experience and track records of success, providing treatment for an extensive range of conditions that include addiction, weight loss, eating disorders, relationships, love and sex, children’s issues, fertility problems, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and sleep issues.  She takes inspiration from her own emotional journey and works with both individuals and blue-chip corporates who want to provide mindfulness support for their people either on a regular or occasional basis, or as part of an employee benefit scheme.