6 months in – mental health and the pandemic

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I keep hearing people talk about the mental health impact of the pandemic. But as with seemingly everything else in life, people are polarised about it. There are the people who think the impact of lockdown is too great, the separation and financial concern too unbearable – and there are those whose anxiety is skyrocketing at the lessening of that lockdown, returning to work, to school, to college. Even more so now the numbers are rising again – but then increased restrictions, a threat of a more severe lockdown again, has the first group rattled. Swings and roundabouts. You cannot please everyone whatever you do.

I get frustrated and annoyed when I see definites, certainties – This will make x worse, This will cause y. I think it’s irresponsible. There are issues which will undoubtedly be getting worse for some. And other which are affected in more complicated ways. Suicide may be increasing – but figures come through slowly, and figures have been increasing already for the past few years. Is the current crisis making it worse? It might seem reasonable to expect so – but mental health is not always reasonable. Sometimes being in a shared crisis can make our own personal nightmares fade into the background for a while. A bit like I would always sober up if a friend was in trouble on a night out, no matter how much I had had to drink.

But the practical concerns of the pandemic will certainly be causing some people to experience mental health struggles who never have before, and who have never developed any coping strategies to deal with mounting anxieties, panic, dark depressions – because they’ve never needed them. Some pushed over the edge by money worries, furlough, redundancy, loss of work – some desperately lonely, missing social connection.

Others though will be more concerned about their health and that of their loved ones. One way or another. If you are concerned about the impact of catching this illness, then no matter how difficult the financial situation gets you will never be totally comfortable about exposing yourself and your family to risk. Even if you have loved ones needing treatment for other illnesses – when called in to hospitals when this treatment resumes – there is the fear, is it safe? Hospital Acquired infection is a terror at the best of times and this is not the best of times.

Health Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Obsessive Compulsive Behaviours, Phobias, Eating Disorders, Self Harm – all on the increase.

And then there is the curious question of those who come down on the side of thinking this is all a hoax and a grand conspiracy. Maybe you are one of them. I am not. Apologies. I err on the side of caution, and draw on my experience to inform my decision about what to believe. I also have my thoughts on how easily such storms are whipped up in this era of mass disinformation and how it relates to aspects of mental health. But that’s for another day.

I’ve worked in health information for decades, I’ve seen the warning signs of a pandemic looming, I’ve seen the lack of preparation. Much like people have held the NHS too lightly because they have forgotten what life was like before it, people have also forgotten that before vaccination became possible epidemics were rife. Anyone who has done family history research that takes them into the overcrowded inner cities of victorian times know that families were decimated, wiped out – Smallpox, Typus, Cholera, Diptheria, TB, Polio.

We stopped being scared of illness. We’re scared of things you can’t catch, like cancer – but not infections. We have become complacent. The attitude we have to sickness in the workplace shows we see health as the default. The difficulties (and indeed abuse and punishment) faced by disabled people simply trying to get support to be able to live their lives and do their best with a minimum of pain and discomfort. We could easily have demanded more hygiene protocols at any point to minimise the risk to the vulnerable from colds, flus and other bugs – but it is seen as weakness to get sick, a personal failing for which you can lose your job.

Perhaps covid will change that. When a cough really can carry you off, perhaps we should be doing more to identify and understand the seasonal ailments which have plagued us for years. I also hope that businesses transform themselves to be more resilient – and in doing so bring about a new era of flexibility and compassion. I genuinely think the world could be better for it – and that their profits would also see the benefit.

The mental health impact of the pandemic is so varied that there can be no universal approach. Everyone must look at their own situation, what are their specific issues, problems, how can they be addressed. Personally I don’t think denial serves anyone for long. Acceptance of where we are, and then seeing what is reasonably practicable to do about it. Accepting that it will take time for things to change, and we may not get back to where we were before. We need to share strategies on how to cope, and help each other get through this, not just rail against the fact that is happening. How many people give up hope because people have told them there is none? There is always hope, always light however feint.

My mental health has gone up and down and up and down again. Relief at being able to protect myself, stress and anxiety at not having any money, Enjoyment of time at home with my husband and cats, loneliness and missing my parents and friends, Taking time to do new things or get on with projects, letting my fitness slide and becoming anxious about leaving the house. Learning new skills and finding new ways to work and meet people online, realising I haven’t brushed my teeth or hair in days, only getting properly dressed if I have to go on zoom. Panic attacks at the state of the world and the division in society. Post apocalyptic nightmares. Obsessive searching for information and constant scrolling, scrolling, scrolling for connection. Occasional urges to return to old habits of self harm, or purging. Suicidal thoughts.

Each time I feel it slide I try to do something to counteract it. Exercise more, eat better, look after myself, push myself to talk to the few friends I have. I keep an eye on it. As does my husband. Increasing lockdown measures put off the thing i’m really fearing – going back to travel and being in rooms with people. Something I know others are itching to do again. I know it will be a challenge for me when it comes. Winter may be a financial challenge – not that it has been a party so far. When my depression rises one of the sticks it beats me with now is “why isn’t this having more impact on your life, why don’t you have friends and family you socialise with and therefore miss, why aren’t you out doing things all the time,” – but I counter with the fact that my life may be quiet and small compared to some -but I am happier and mentally healthier than I was when it was large and noisesome. Perhaps I have deliberately made it manageable.

I remind myself what helps me. Meditation. Breathing exercises. Sleep. Immersing myself in something. Learning. Helping others. Acting on trying to alleviate my worries. Watching the clouds, the birds, the wind in the long grass. Focusing on whatever small circle of calm I can make in this moment. Putting the chaos off until I have more energy to deal with it.

As well as the necessary financial support for individuals and businesses – we know there needs to be massive investment in mental health to help us get through this. Both by the government, and by businesses. It has been needed for decades, and this is just the flood that comes after you neglect a leaking pipe for too long. We need to stop seeing mental wellbeing as a luxury. If you want a country, a business, an individual that is thriving – you have to give them the right environment and meet their needs. We’re not that different from plants after all.

The good news however, is that we all have the power to support those around us. Reach out if you need help, reach out if you are worried about someone, reach out if you aren’t worried but just haven’t spoken for a while. We may be distanced but we don’t need to be alone.

If you are struggling now – click here for some resources

If you’d like to learn more about mental health and supporting people, join me on one of my upcoming courses

If you’d like to arrange training for your workplace or organisation – contact me on sarahlongmhfauk@gmail.com

For more on looking after our mental health through this period:
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/mental-health-tips

https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/coronavirus-covid-19-anxiety-tips/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus/

https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/covid-19-support/

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