THE MENTAL HEALTH PANDEMIC
Is there a silver lining?
By Holly Scott
Credits: iStock, Everyday Health
Covid-19 has caused unprecedented havoc across the globe. From the introduction of strict lockdowns; reconceptualising ‘normal life’, to instilling fear within ourselves and for our loved ones. But alongside Covid-19, there has been an underlying pandemic of another nature – a mental health crisis. Although attitudes towards mental health have somewhat shifted in recent years, there is a consistent stigma glued to the topic. The insistent stigma causes many of us to feel as though talking about mental health is a sign of weakness, or something to be ashamed of. With the terrifying statistic provided by Mind - that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health problems of some kind every year - it is unwaveringly clear that destigmatising mental health is of the upmost importance. But with Covid-19 ensuing in 2020, mental health has become increasingly relevant. How has Covid-19 shifted people’s perspectives towards mental health? Has it helped to destigmatise it? Or has it worsened the already growing problem?
Mental health has suffered as a result of lockdown restrictions, which have been enforced to reduce the rapid spread of Covid-19. ‘Normal life’ had to be redefined - from balancing a social life, travel and work, to having to cope with isolation, a home office and your morning coffee or walk becoming the highlight of your day. The distractions and indulgences of normality have been stripped away, leaving people with no choice but to face the bare realities of life. With the combination of increased alone time, separation from friends and family and the constant fear of catching and spreading Covid-19, it is no surprise that the Mental Health Foundation reported that 54% of UK adults are struggling with feelings of anxiety (December 2020). Half of UK adults reported that they do not feel able to cope with the uncertain nature of the pandemic. Furthermore, 23% - almost a quarter of - UK adults reported feelings of loneliness (this being especially prevalent amongst young people). The effects on UK’s mental health as a whole have been utterly detrimental. But is this surprising? As not only have we been living through one of the worst global pandemics in history, but we have also been faced with the impossible task of learning how to carry on and be resilient, no matter what.
Priorities have been so entirely consumed by Covid-19, that mental health as a whole has been largely overlooked.
It is no secret that Covid-19 has required vast resources from the health sector, in order to cope as best as possible with the increase in hospital patients. More time, money, space and staff have been needed, and then some. Whilst the increase in resources is completely necessary, it has reduced the focus on mental health drastically. Priorities have been so entirely consumed by Covid-19, that mental health as a whole has been largely overlooked. Illustrating this point, the World Health Organisation reported that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted and halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. Furthermore, The Lancet conducted a study which concluded that there has been a sustained reduction in primary care contacts for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. This is a primary example of the reduction of resources, a concerning thought when the majority of mental health disorders are managed in primary care. Unfortunately, the blatant influence Covid-19 has exerted on mental health will not cease to exist when life ‘goes back to normal’. The impact of Covid-19 will be visible in times to come, with Strategy Unit predicting that within the next three years (2020/21-23) there will be a 33% increase in demand for the utilisation of mental health services, as a direct result of Covid-19 implications.
The impact that Covid-19 has had on mental health can be clearly portrayed through the heartbreaking case of Llyr, Dr Alex George’s 19-year-old brother, who took his own life during the pandemic. According to the BBC, Dr Alex George (reality star and A&E doctor) attributes Llyr’s suicide to the pandemic, and stresses the importance of supporting young people during this difficult time. Dr Alex George has since been named government mental health ambassador through his determination for change. This is an inspiring example of a young and influential person becoming more actively involved in leading the destigmatisation of mental health.
It is all too easy to focus on the negative aspects that Covid-19 has brought to our lives. It is not so easy, however, to reflect on the not-so-bad, or maybe even good, changes brought about by Covid-19. Focusing on the positives has been a challenge for all of us this past year, but it has been an important way of coping for everyone. With all this new free time, what have people been doing to cope with the stress of the pandemic? According to the Mental Health Foundation, as of December 2020, 53% of adults in the UK said that going for a walk outside has helped them to cope, with 40% saying that being able to visit green spaces helped them just as much. Moreover, contacting friends and family has helped people cope with the pandemic, with contacting friends being the top preferred coping method, especially for full time students. This goes to show that things that were once mundane daily activities, have been transformed into lifesaving methods of coping with the stress of the pandemic – and as a result, forcing us all to slow down, take a step back and evaluate our lives.
A consequential aspect of lockdown has been the amount of time spent online, in particular, on social media. Social media has played a vital role during lockdown, with Digital Commerce discovering that 72% of survey respondents reported that their use of social media had increased during the pandemic. Social media has provided entertainment throughout seemingly endless hours of boredom, and enabled communication with inaccessible friends and family. HelpGuide states that social media has been an invaluable tool during Covid-19, easing stress, anxiety and depression for many. The sudden loss of companionship due to Covid-19 has severely impacted mental health for numerous people, ensuing feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Therefore, social media has played a vital role in filling the metaphorical hole in our lives, which was left behind by the isolation of Covid-19.
...it is clear that people have been more inclined to use social media as a supportive platform to increase awareness of mental health.
Importantly, social media is a platform for people to voice their opinions and share posts in which they find significance. Since restrictions were first imposed, there has been a notable increase in the creation and popularity of accounts aiming to establish a safe and supportive space for anyone struggling with the lockdown restrictions. Countless posts which promote methods of seeking help in times of distress, mental health acceptance and openness have been shared since lockdown began. People are using their platforms to become more vocal and spread information about what they believe to be important – mental health. Is it possible to assume that Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have highlighted the stigma surrounding mental health? With more people struggling with lockdown, less accessibility to mental health resources and increased time spent on social media, it is clear that people have been more inclined to use social media as a supportive platform to increase awareness of mental health.
So, it is undeniable that Covid-19 has generally worsened mental health, especially through the sudden change in normality and the reduction of vital resources. But on the other hand, it can be argued that Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of mental health, with social media playing a role in destigmatising and normalising the subject. It is indisputable that lockdown has impacted everyone differently. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to mental health, and nor will there ever be. But with the overwhelming evidence to show that mental health has worsened since lockdown began, it is clear that its importance has become more obvious in people’s lives.
To understand the extent of the change in importance, I asked my own followers on my private social media account the question: ‘Has mental health become more important to you during the last year (lockdown)?’. The results were very clear, with 161 (91%) of people voting for yes, whilst only 16 (9%) of people voting for no. Although the poll was answered by small subset of social media users, the results are interesting in highlighting the shift in attitude towards mental health due to lockdown, with its importance and prevalence increasing within society. This further encourages the journey of reducing the mental health stigma. So, maybe this is a silver lining within the dark, ever-looming cloud that is Covid-19.
Holly is in her 2nd year of BSc Psychology at Oxford Brookes University
Brunier, C.Drysdale (2020). COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries, WHO Survey. World Health Organisation News Release. 5th October
British Broadcasting Service. (2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-55932214
Hood. (2020) Stategy Unit NHS. Estimating the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health Services in England - Summary of Results and Methods. NHS Midlands and Lancashire
K. E. Mansfield, R. Mathur, J. Tazare, A. D. Henderson, A. R. Mulick, H. Carriera. (2021). Indirect Acute Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical and Mental Health in the UK: A Population-based Study. The Lancet, Digital Health
Mental Health Foundation. Wave-9: Pre-Christmas 2020. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/wave-9-pre-christmas-2020
Mind. Mental Health Facts and Statistics. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/