For over a year now our ‘normal way of being’ has been changed and disrupted in a way that few of us could ever have imagined. Shops, pubs, restaurants, and gyms all closed, millions working from home, millions furloughed from work and sadly many of others made redundant as society (and parts of the economy) locked down. Many people have been unable to see or have contact with their loved ones for protracted periods and everyday has brought stories of loss and heartache in the media. Of course, it has not all been bad news, as in any crisis or crises, people step up and we have seen an endless stream of ‘hero’s’ endlessly prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, Captain Tom, Key workers and the legions who work in the NHS and in social care – to name just a few. None of us know for sure when all this will come to an end, but it is becoming clear that our world will be forever changed by the events of 2020 and 2021 – as we embrace mask wearing, home delivery, TV workouts, shopping online, and washing or sanitising our hands every few minutes.
Reports of a deteriorating mental wellbeing amongst the wider population have been widespread over recent months, and none of these reports are surprising given the many changes and ‘restrictions’ people have been forced to endure. Things we all took for granted have been cruelly curtailed or taken away… things like meeting a friend or a relative for coffee, socialising with colleagues after work, relieving stress in the gym or relaxing at the cinema, the theatre, or a sporting event. As we enter the spring of 2021 there is an atmosphere of both resignation and fatigue gripping the nation. Resignation that people generally accept and follow the strict rules imposed by Government – like mandatory mask wearing and social distancing but also a fatigue that comes from not knowing how long these restrictions will continue. Numerous promises have been made by politicians that ‘the end is in sight’, but the pandemic is an emerging challenge that throws up new variants and new challenges that make certainty almost impossible. Many people were reassured by the hope of a ‘normal’ Christmas – which was ‘taken away’ at the last minute while others dreamed of a summer vacation – a dream that is on hold until most of the world is vaccinated.
The loss of the interaction with others is considerable, not seeing friends and family is a significant loss (particularly for those that live alone), but even casual ad hoc conversations with other people in the workplace, in shops or even in the street have disappeared. Mask wearing prevents casual facial interaction – a smile or a positive gesture; and people walking often cross the road to avoid you – sometimes giving a reassuring look that says, ‘no offence’ intended. We have all become isolated, distanced and inevitably slightly anti-social.
Our relationships with others are changed, some have not seen their family for months and this maybe because they cannot travel or it may be that their loved ones are in care homes etc… in some cases this sense of loss is amplified where the loved one is elderly or not in good mental or physical health. At the opposite end of the spectrum some relationships have become more intensified, families being together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – in circumstances where people are working from home, been furloughed, been made redundant and/or where schools have been closed etc. In some cases, this has added further tensions and stress and a significant change from our regular way of being… you might love someone but that does not mean its necessarily healthy to spend every waking hour in their company. Many parents have also shared their experiences of the burden placed on them to home school children; young people have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and the indecision surrounding exams and grades has only added to the problem.
Many of us balance our lives by pursuing a range of social and leisure activities in our spare time. Many of these activities have been disrupted by the pandemic. Pubs, clubs, restaurants, and gyms for example have largely been closed or curtailed. Sporting activities have been heavily restricted and spectator sports even where they have gone ahead – have done so without spectators (a contradiction in itself). Of course, many of us have found new and different things to do – walking, cycling and home baking are resurgent and a whole range of crafts and hobbies have been taken up by people with obvious gaps in their leisure time’ but this doesn’t change the fact that many of us have had our hobbies or leisure activities taken away from us and this has been a significant contributor to the decline in mental wellbeing.
And then of course for many of us there is work, some have continued as before, but working within the constraints of social distancing, some are ‘key’ front line workers who have done much to keep the country ‘ticking over’, some people have been furloughed and have had no work and been confronted with the prospect that they may not have a job to return to, others have been working at home, often in makeshift offices in bedrooms, kitchens and broom cupboards. Others sadly have lost their work during the pandemic and face the additional burden of financial hardship in an uncertain environment where it is incredibly difficult to secure alternative employment. The statistics we see on tv regarding rising unemployment often mask the heartache and pain of individual cases and financial hardship redundancy brings.
On balance, the last 12 months or so have been like no other, none of us could ever have foreseen or imagined what would happen, The Covid 19 virus has taken us all by surprise, it has impacted some people more than others and it has created significant levels of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty for many. Ultimately, we will all be changed by what has happened, and whilst we will gradually go back to our old habits, hobbies, and way of being, there will be some aspects of life that will be forever changed. I hope that we are all able to reconnect with those around us, to feel sociable, reconnected, and able to use our leisure time as we wish. The covid 19 virus has highlighted and amplified many of the injustices and inequalities in our society and it is important that we all commit to addressing this longer term so that all the hardship, pain, and loss that people have endured finally counts for something.
So, what does the impact of Covid 19 and the associated economic downturn mean for the nation’s mental health?
In England it is estimated that up to 10 million people – a fifth of the population – will need new or existing support for a mental health condition, the majority of mental health conditions relate to depression, anxiety, trauma, or complicated grief arising from loss. Circa 1.5 million of those requiring urgent support will be children. The lasting effects and impacts of Covid 19 will continue for many years into the future and it is important we remember this and that we provide the empathy and support that people need into the future… yes, we all need to move on, but we must not forget, and we really must support those that need our help and support into the future.