Opinion / by Megan Robinson
As lockdown begins to ease across the country, how do we go about using our new experience to better protect our collective mental health?
We are slowly but surely easing out of lockdown restrictions. Next week we will see the return of outdoor hospitality, and the reopening of gyms, hairdressers, and non-essential shops, and on May 17 we will finally be allowed to mix indoors.
This will be welcome news for many people, as we have been in and out of lockdown for a year and the uncertainty has been stressful. Numerous people have lost jobs, homes, and loved ones due to the pandemic, and statistics show that, as of March 15 2021, approximately 11.4 million people in the UK have been on furlough.
Despite the nation's best efforts to keep it together – some people baked banana bread, others organised a weekly pub quiz with their friends over Zoom, and many others decided it was the perfect time to do daily exercise and get fit – news of countries returning to normal while we have simultaneously racked up one of the highest death tolls in the world (almost 130,000 as of writing) has taken its toll on our collective mental health. According to Mind, 60 per cent of adults and 68 per cent of young people (18-24 year olds) reported that their mental health had worsened as a consequence of lockdown.
So, as the cycle of lockdowns and other restrictions that have lasted for over a year begin to wind down, what happens now? And how will we deal with the long-lasting effects this pandemic has had on so many?
A complicated outlook
A year on, the Mental Health Foundation have conducted a landmark study into the mental health of the UK public. It reveals a mixed picture of mental health relating to COVID-19.
Despite anxiety about the pandemic having fallen from 62% in March 2020 to 42% in February 2021, thoughts and feelings of suicide have risen from 8% to 13% over the past year. Loneliness has also more than doubled from 10% to 26%, while statistics indicate that fewer adults are coping well with stress in 2021 compared with 2020.
The likelihood is that these feelings of stress and loneliness will not pass once we exit lockdown, even with the positive news that has and will come with the winding down of pandemic restrictions. The research shows that we need to be prepared for a mental health crisis and ensure that people who are struggling can access the help they need. But our recovery isn't just about improving access to help – we also need to be careful of exactly how we go about returning back to 'normality'.
A large proportion of society will be chomping at the bit to return back to their previous lives, ready to resume their work and social lives as if nothing ever changed. But there are also many of us who have become accustomed to sitting at home for the past year, meaning that new or existing triggers that could harm our mental wellbeing may arise. For example, there are fears that emerging from lockdown while cases of COVID-19 remain could cause major anxiety in those who are worried about their health, or the health of those around them. Returning to work, seeing people face to face, and going to crowded places could cause issues too, especially for those who struggled with these kind of scenarios prior to the pandemic. Having had a year away from socialising and travelling, it may be even harder to return to this way of life. Many people will also be dealing with grief. An unfortunate amount of people have lost their lives due to COVID, or other reasons, and their loved ones have not had the chance to grieve properly due to limitations on visits and funerals.
A duty to help
Even before the pandemic, it was reported that 1 in 4 will experience a mental health issue of some kind in England each year. This has increased since the start of lockdown, so we now have a duty to help even more people who are suffering with mental health issues.
Mental health services and charities have tried to offer as much help as possible during lockdown, despite cancelled or unavailable appointments. Phone calls, Zoom calls and other ways of contact were put into place, and we should soon see a full return to face-to-face contact.
But as a nation we need to keep up the brilliant efforts we've made over the past year. I still want neighbours to bake each other cakes, for friends to organise a group Zoom call once in a while, and for people to check on their friends or relatives who live on their own.
It remains that some people find it difficult to seek support from family, friends, and even professionals, and those experiencing mental health issues may feel worried to speak about it once restrictions are lifted. So I hope, after the year that we have had, more of us can empathise with those struggling with their mental health. And I hope that more of us will offer our support to each other.
Your struggles are still valid even though the world is carrying on as normal so please seek support if needed.
If you are worried about how lockdown ending will affect you, the Mental Health Foundation have released some advice that you can read here.