In-depth | COVID-19

A pandemic of mental disorders

By - 24.02.2022

The re-traumatization of Serbian society.

At the end of January, the Serbian Society of Psychologists (DPS) issued a statement that warned of the worsening state of people’s mental health, describing the current situation as “a pandemic of mental disorders,” the result of “a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.”

The statement also served as a call for “social and personal accountability” from decision-makers who affect the lives of others. After almost a month since the statement was published, there have been no reactions from institutions.

The statement notes that existing social divides have led to this alarming situation, which are exacerbated by the “devaluation of moral and cultural values, the collapse of the quality of education, and other negative phenomena,” including a public discourse that “promotes and deepens antagonism and intolerance.”

Professor Tamara Džamonja Ignjatović, president of the DPS and a signatory of the statement, says that the cause of the current conditions in society is not just due to the pandemic but also because Serbian society has been deeply traumatized for decades.

Psychotherapist Marija Živković agrees and points out that not a single generation in Serbia was spared some sort of severe trauma. “On its own, the pandemic is a traumatic situation, but it also had the effect of re-traumatizing people,” said Živković.

Spreading panic

Contradictory information from public officials and doctors throughout the media has, according to Džamonja Ignjatović, heightened the panic that resulted from the pandemic.

In February 2020, while visiting the Presidency of Serbia, pulmonologist Branimir Nestorović said that he “cannot believe that a nation that has suffered from sanctions, bombardment and all kinds of mistreatment, would fear the silliest virus in the history of humankind.” At that time, the authorities, including President Aleksandar Vučić, publicly called upon citizens to continue living normally.

Then the first registered cases of Covid ensued, followed by the first deaths, and the government suddenly changed course with drastic measures. In March a state of emergency was declared and schools, universities and gyms were shut down. People entering Serbia had to spend 14 days in quarantine. Older people were almost completely barred from going outside, and Vučić asked that everyone respect the measures, saying that “our cemeteries will be too small to accommodate us all if you decide to listen to the advice of others. I beg you to listen to your state.”

Psychotherapist Marija Živković says that citizens have lost trust in institutions. Photo: courtesy of Marija Živković.

At the end of March 2020, users of MTS, one of the largest mobile providers in Serbia, received disturbing messages from state institutions about the pandemic situation in the country. “The situation is dramatic. We are nearing the Italian and Spanish scenarios. Please remain at home. COVID-19 Infectious Disease Crisis Staff,” the text message read.

“There was so much information in the media,” said Džamonja Ignjatović, “from ‘the most frivolous virus’ to the fact that the cemetery will not be enough — so in this chaos people can hardly cope and thus lose confidence that the information they get is reliable in any way.”

In November 2020, Minister of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Affairs Darija Kisić Tepavčević, who was also a member of the Crisis Staff for combatting Covid in Serbia, sent a discouraging message: “Each family needs to be its own Crisis Staff that determines what’s best for its members, and everybody should check their own behavior,” she said.


The transfer of state responsibility to the individual is an additional factor that has burdened citizens, according to Živković.

“In pandemic conditions many roles have blended. It was especially difficult for young people who had small children, where work, house chores and childcare became mixed up. It’s not possible to simultaneously and effectively manage all of these demands on one’s time,” said Džamonja Ignjatović.

The situation didn’t improve even after the vaccination campaign started. Although the authorities ensured the availability of all types of vaccines, the vaccination process wasn’t preceded by a campaign to provide citizens with sufficient information about individual vaccines and possible side effects.

As of this February, less than half of Serbia's population was fully vaccinated.

“Vaccination is a process that needs to be implemented, and it is implemented by the state with certain means and measures,” said Živković, who also emphasized that countries with the highest trust in state and health institutions are the places with the highest percentage of vaccinated people.

Meanwhile, less than half of Serbia’s population is fully vaccinated, the total standing at 46.7%, and vaccination points in Serbia’s shopping malls are shutting down due to low interest

Živković doesn’t absolve individuals entirely, but notes that in order to build trust it’s necessary for the state to take on a large degree of responsibility. “In this situation, we have the individual person who is forced to educate their children, protect their children, decide on which vaccine they will get, with whom and how will they stay in touch… So, it is up to the individual to assess everything and bear the responsibility,” said Živković, adding that she personally has the feeling that, for the past two years, it’s as if “somebody is constantly shouting at us and scolding us for being bad, disobedient children. The key thing is trust. Where is it and why has it disappeared?”

Psychotherapist Marija Živković says that citizens have lost trust in institutions. Photo: courtesy of Marija Živković.

The right to truthful and complete information is also a topic that the DPS touched upon in their statement, saying that “in a society where critical thinking is discouraged, education devalued, where pressure is applied by means of intimidation, and conformism encouraged, that is where apathy, hopelessness, and anomy gain ground.”

“Because when you see that individuals starring in serious political talk-shows, where guests who represent institutions that govern our lives and other decision-makers use vocabulary that is unfit even for coffee shops and taverns, let alone the state assembly, then this serves to model behavior in everyday life,” Džamonja Ignjatović said, adding that this helps create a thoroughly polarized climate in society.

Making ends meet

Živković compares the influence of the pandemic on the individual with the “boiling frog syndrome,” a term used for a situation when a person is living in conditions that should be unbearable and unacceptable to her but she’s failed to notice it because she arrived there gradually, getting accustomed to each individual change over time.

“During all these years, we have lost hope that things will get better, that we will move in a positive direction; what has been debased the most today is trust, interpersonal relationships and hope,” Džamonja Ignjatović said. 

“We are constantly living from day to day, waiting for a better tomorrow which always eludes us. You keep swimming and swimming, but the shore gets farther away. Of course, this is very draining,” she said.

“We no longer have empathy for others or even for ourselves,” Živković said. “Divisions in society are ever-deepening; there is no dialogue and we are ready to aggressively defend our attitudes, whether the topic of contention be vaccination or an underwear ad. This speaks volumes about the lack of empathy,” she said and concluded that in this situation, with zero institutional support, the only solution is for people to help each other. “We should lend a hand to the person who fell, and not just walk past them. We truly miss that.”

Feature photo: K2.0.