Covid-19 shines a light on another crisis: the nation’s mental health
The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on Britain’s mental health.
Stress and anxiety levels are up, with health fears, isolation, and financial insecurity all taking their toll.
However, perhaps there could be an upside, if it now becomes more acceptable for people to admit they’re not okay and to seek out ways to take care of themselves and one another.
So what is the impact of the pandemic on our mental health, both in the short and the long-term; and what support is out there for those who are struggling?
First, the gloomy news. A paper published in Lancet Psychiatry shows that “it is already evident that the direct and indirect psychological and social effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic are pervasive and could affect mental health now and in the future”.
Respondents to surveys carried out for the paper reported anxiety over work, money, obtaining food, keeping in touch, and fears of the virus itself, among other concerns.
One of the paper’s authors, Professor Rory O’Connor, commented: “Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Without intervention, he added, people could resort to alcohol, drugs and gambling, which could in turn lead to homelessness.
Some demographic groups are more prone than others. The Lancet paper lists eight:
Although it’s too early to analyse fully the effect of the Covid-19 crisis on the UK’s mental health, earlier pandemics do provide clues.
Professor O’Connor says: “If we look at the Sars outbreak in 2003, we know there is evidence there that there were increased rates of anxiety, increased rates of depression and post-traumatic stress and, in some groups, there were also increased rates of suicide.”
During the Sars epidemic of 2003, there was a 30% increase in suicide in the over-65s
And recent research from China found that of 214 patients in hospitals in Wuhan with Covid-19, 78 reported neurological symptoms.
So how do we prevent Covid-19 in the UK from causing a Sars-like mental health crisis?
According to those surveyed for the Lancet paper, some very standard actions can be effective.
Staying connected, often online, with friends and family; keeping busy with hobbies, reading, and home improvements; physical activities, for example walking, running and online exercise classes; managing access to news and social media about the coronavirus; and staying calm through meditation, prayer or pets all featured highly.
These are echoed in the NHS guidance, suggesting there’s a pretty high agreement of what to do – so now it’s time to make it happen, particularly for vulnerable groups.
The 24 leading mental health experts who authored the Lancet paper are calling for “moment-to-moment” monitoring of mental health to enable the provision of effective tools to support people at home.
And mental health charity Mind has expressed concerns that people are already struggling to access the support they need.
Workplace mental health
Expert support needs to be tailored towards each vulnerable demographic.
But one area in which many of us can already take action to support one another is the remote workplace.
Staff in many sectors across the country are now working from home, juggling schedules with childcare and other commitments. They may be facing anxieties and stress – but they don’t have to do so alone.
Many employers have robust technical infrastructure and tools in place that are coming into their own in these extraordinary times. Microsoft Teams, Slack and various webchat tools allow colleagues to communicate not just about work matters, but also just to check in with one another about what’s bothering them.
It’s technology with a human touch – and, as the authorities indicate that some lockdown measures could continue for months, it looks like it’s here to stay.
Here to help
Even once the Covid-19 pandemic has died down, the aftermath will be severe. We will need action at a national level to protect mental health, including one-to-one counselling and 24/7 support for the most vulnerable.
Yet as mental health expert Garen Staglin writes, this could be a “watershed moment for mental health care”.
“Mindfulness and meditation apps are trending and nearly every (virtual) social interaction is preceded with an emotional wellbeing check-in.
“In terms of eroding stigma and normalising conversations about mental health, this change in behaviour and expectations bodes extremely well for the new, post COVID-19 reality we all are hoping will be here soon.”
Here at Connect Assist, we welcome that sea-change in attitudes.