This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Julie* is a successful furniture and object designer with a strong and colourful personality. She has no history of mental health issues, but during the first lockdown she had a psychotic breakdown that made her violent and paranoid.
It all happened around Easter, when France had already been in lockdown for three weeks. Cooped up at her family’s place, Julie seemed fine, but her anxiety levels were growing every day. Soon, she stopped sleeping at night.
After a day without sleep, Julie said she felt emotional and vulnerable. On her second day, she started talking incoherently, shouting angrily at her family and experiencing delusions. At the time, a feminist collective was plastering French cities with messages against gendered violence. Julie could see one of these murals from her window and started believing they were evidence of an actual war between men and women.
On the third day, she threw her phone down the toilet, worried someone was watching her. “During a Skype call with my boyfriend, who was abroad, I wrote, ‘They’re listening’ on a notepad. I was terrified,” she said. On the fourth day, while looking out at the street from her balcony, Julie thought she saw an Asian man abducting a Black woman. “I believed the Chinese had invaded France and wanted to enslave us,” she said. She yelled at the top of her lungs, “Let her go!” at an empty sidewalk.
“I barely remember when the firemen came to take me to the hospital,” Julie said. The night before, she had texted all her contacts and told them she loved them, as if she was about to die. The emergency personnel found her in a difficult state – her face was contorted and she seemed to have cut her own hair with kitchen scissors. She later found out her mum had called them after they had a fight. “I tried to strangle her. I don’t remember why I did that,” Julie said. Her mum had to strip her naked and throw her under a cold shower to calm her down.
Marie-Christine Beaucousin, head of a medical centre in Seine-Saint-Denis on the outskirts of Paris, said she’s come across many cases like Julie’s in the past months. “We were surprised to suddenly see so many young patients having their first psychotic episode, much more than usual,” she said. “One of our patients thought he was the COVID virus. Another one, a bus driver, has delusions of persecution. He was petrified – he blocked the door of his room with the bed. We had to call the police to remove him.”
It’s relatively rare for someone to experience delusions out of the blue. But Dr Beaucousin said the number of psychiatric patients without a previous history of psychosis jumped from 17 to 27 percent in her department. “Our data is currently being analysed by the hospital research unit to understand exactly what happened during this first lockdown,” she said.
After being removed from her home, Julie was brought to a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for 12 days. Initially, she had constant hallucinations, she would rock back and forward, mumble incoherently and scream. She was very combative with staff, to the point that six nurses were needed to help her take her prescriptions.
“A nurse called Marie used to hold my hand. That’s what calmed me down, more than the drugs,” Julie said. At some point, she even thought she was the Messiah. “I grabbed her [Marie’s] soft hand and said, ‘Take the hand of Jesus,’” she said. “I thought I had the power to treat people for coronavirus.”
After a half-hearted suicide attempt, Julie started getting back to reality. She met other young patients, had calls with friends and family and tried to cool down. Eventually, she found out the hospital couldn’t keep her against her will, so she decided to go back to her family’s place. But nothing had really changed, and she stopped sleeping again. She urgently contacted her psychiatrist, who increased her doses of anxiolytic and antipsychotic drugs.
On the 11th of May, the lockdown ended and Julie moved back to her own place and started seeing her boyfriend again. “That’s when I got my life back,” she said. But the effects of an acute psychotic breakdown can take a toll on your mind for a long time. “It’s like having a car accident – the doctors told me that it will take about a year,” she said. “The drugs are my crutches – little by little I try to do without.”
Dr Marie-Liesse De Lanversin, head of a medical centre in Paris’s 11th district, said she and her staff have been busier than ever. “We were overwhelmed by patients at the end of the [first] lockdown, and it keeps going,” she said. Now that France is on lockdown again, the mental health crisis is expected to continue.
Julie said she feels confident she won’t have another episode. “I know myself better, I know what makes me anxious,” she said. “This time, I’m staying away from Paris. I’m going to Creuse [a countryside region] with some friends. I’m gonna sew, exercise, everything will be fine.”
If you’re not feeling as strong as Julie, that’s OK, too. The WHO has put together a multilingual guide about how to recognise and deal with stress in a healthy way. Experts have also warned that consuming too much news can contribute to anxiety. Limiting your consumption of drugs and alcohol is also important for your mental health, even if it’s hard. And remember: there’s no shame in asking for help. Everyone’s in therapy now anyway.
* Name changed. Julie did not want to disclose her age and city.