Flat White

Tough love: how lockdown’s got us painting rocks and why that’s not all bad

10 August 2021

4:00 AM

10 August 2021

4:00 AM

A regular series of rules for life by Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor and CEO of Lifeline Australia.

Across Sydney, the punters are painting rocks. 

In a COVID era craze, locked-up householders are decorating rocks with various cheerful, colourful and inspirational designs. Then, on their allotted exercise walks, they are hiding them in public parks for others to discover and post on Facebook. Yes, it’s a real thing, and apparently one of 2021’s successors to COVID 1.0’s rubbish bin roll-out videos and sourdough bread baking.  

Part of me says this is playful fun and an innocent response to both complex times and more disposable time. That part would be right, and I’m glad about this phenomenon (which I came across when I discovered a rock with a smiley face in our local western Sydney park last week).  

But it’s also right to suggest something else is also going on here. What appears simple is, on another level, a diverse response to the biggest social experiment of the 21st century: locking down millions of people in their homes, taking away some of their jobs, and restricting their personal liberty. 

Yes, lockdowns are an unfortunate inevitability in the absence of other strategies. I hope they contain numbers. But, the picture that’s emerging from the experiment is that, the less discriminating a lockdown, the bigger its ancillary impacts appear to be. 

In Sydney’s sixth week of harder lockdown, we saw Lifeline record its highest number of calls on a single day with 3345 on Monday. The figure had been climbing throughout July during which Sydney was locked down. During my own time as Lifeline’s CEO, I watched our national call numbers on a daily basis and never saw them climb over 2500 or so. So, the “growth” (for lack of a more empathetic term) is profound and profoundly frightening.  

As the CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia, Nieves Murray, said: “The recent lockdowns have significantly shifted the social and economic landscape in Australia and will exacerbate the risk factors that are clearly linked to distress, such as economic hardship, employment, relationship breakdown and loneliness, particularly for young people.”

Notably, and though it’s reassuring that help-seekers are reaching out, we need to interrogate the fact that the number of people in crisis appears to be peaking as our largest city is in the midst of its longest lockdown. It says that, while there are likely to be “chronic” or longer-term factors like stress and sadness about COVID itself, there are also “acute” or shorter-term factors like loneliness and anger about lockdown itself at play. These dual factors, in turn, can impact on both: a) those who were vulnerable prior to COVID, and; b) those who are newly experiencing distress as contributed to by an unprecedented situation – which lockdown makes even more unprecedented.   


This is backed up by my psychologist and counsellor friends who report their clients presenting with broader existential concerns about COVID, as well as strong emotional distress about the main measure to deal with it. If fear of COVID is an abstract because we may not personally know anyone who has died, it can be argued that lockdown is a State-crafted and concrete institutionalisation of that fear. 

“As the start of the pandemic, many of my clients started with being sad and fearful about the disease which was somewhere ‘out there’. As events have progressed and lockdowns have rolled out, they are compounding those initial feelings with loneliness or anger at having to be shut inside their houses all the time, which is immediate and confronting,” a practicing psychologist who is fully booked out told me.

As was suggested at the outset, it appears that not only the disease but its remedies are impacting on people’s mental and emotional well-being. To minimise this damage is to be wilfully ignorant, captive to a limited set of “expert” advice, or downright cruel. It can also be elitist given that lockdown disproportionately hits the hi-vis in the western suburbs who — unlike politicians, public servants, blue Chekists, and media types — don’t type for a living. Or are of a different age bracket. 

As Murray notes, nowhere is the impact stronger than among the young who don’t have the benefit of life experience and perspective. Statistics released by NSW Health show that self-harm and suicidal ideation presentations to Emergency Departments are up by nearly 50% among 12 to 17 year old’s between 2019 and 2021. In real terms, that’s 7500 kids. Call it the populations of some eight Sydney public schools. 

However, we should also be thankful for and mindful of what’s shown in recently released death by suicide statistics. Namely, suicides did NOT increase in 2020 even as levels of emotional distress may have. Mental health researchers and practitioners are suggesting that this may be because of JobKeeper, further destigmatisation of help-seeking, and community spirit in a time of crisis. (We should also always note that suicide is a complex behaviour, and it is wrong to attribute its causality to any single factor.) 

What’s been observed as different in 2021 as the pandemic grinds on is: general fatigue, increased restrictions and waning personal connections for some, the questionable deployment of military personnel in Australia’s most complex CALD and PTS-affected community, and the hopelessness of having no definitive end in sight as our vaccination program careens. 

So, in this context, some Sydneysiders have chosen to take out their brushes and paint Smurfs on river rocks bought during their blessed Bunnings visits. What are they doing? What can we as individuals take from it for our own well-being? 

Future archaeologists may agree that one thing that we were doing is creating mini-totems. For ages, different societies have had totems that reflect who they collectively think they are, what they believe in, and the surrounding world. Totems are said to define peoples’ roles and responsibilities, and their relationships with each other and creation. Hence, in an increasingly secular society where we don’t turn to religious icons and when those remaining of religion belief can’t go to places of worship, it’s interesting to consider this. Maybe, we are displaying our own story – or own way of explaining and coping with current reality – on our painted rocks. 

At an individual level, it’s a reminder – whether we are religious or otherwise – of the importance of having our personal touchstones in a somewhat dystopian period. When how we expect our society to work and our lives to unfold is at sea in a storm, it’s good for us to make use of our anchors — the objects or practices that bring us back to our core values and beliefs. Those things or behaviours that centre us when the context is anything but stable and predictable. 

Our painted rocks are not only possibly totemic; without stretching too far, I believe that they are small but meaningful expressions of liberty. Where so many of our choices are now limited, and our opportunity to interact with others is restricted, we are finding ways to personally and gracefully exercise our inherent freedoms, including to express ourselves and to associate with others in new forms. On its own tiny scale, rock by rock, it says something deeper about how people react to State-introduced measures, as well-intended as those measures may be.  

The public seems to generally comply to public health orders and that’s a sign of trust in the state (with the exception of some ill-considered protestors). At the same time, regular folks may also be devising their own “organic” demonstrations of universal rights, and saying that it;s ultimately not the State’s prerogative to give or take our rights. Is it a stretch to say these are Freedom Rocks? 

Maybe yes, maybe no. But certainly, they certainly prompt us that the pandemic is a temporary change if not a challenge to the assumption of universal human rights that modern and successful democracies are founded on.  

At an individual level, the opportunity is to reflect on our personal agency, and the small but collectively significant choices we can make to preserve our liberal traditions. Perhaps, it’s time to be more self-aware of our rights rather than taking them for granted and, resultingly, question the wisdom of some of the policy-making that we are seeing and experiencing. 

Finally, for mine, those rocks in the park – adorned on humble kitchen tables – are a defence of beauty. Under lockdown, besides unsatisfying digital screen alternatives, our sources of art and beauty have disappeared, as our strongly supported museums, libraries, music venues and theatres have been mothballed. So, reflecting the most basic anthropological constructs, like Neanderthals forming images of animals on cave walls, we’re painting rocks. We’re fulfilling some human instinct that draws us to beauty and its higher purpose. 

As author Andre Aciman said: “[Beauty] realigns us with our better selves, with the people we’ve always known we were but neglected to become, the people we crave to be before our time runs out.”  

Or, when a pandemic is reminding us of the limits of our own mortality, beauty has the power of the limitless and eternal, of what stays when we are gone.  

So, as beauty can help us strive to be and do better, whether it’s in a normal time or this “new normal” time, our individual opportunity is to contribute to making the joint more beautiful. One rock at a time. 

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