Mental Health In the Time of Corona
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found the last 58 days pretty tough. It’s been two months since lockdown was announced and our country came to a standstill in an attempt to prevent overwhelming the NHS and spreading a dangerous virus. People have been expressing their boredom, frustration and worry in an explosion of creativity on social media, capturing everything from the mundane to the terrifying when it comes to being united in separation. Something that people still seem reluctant to discuss, however, is mental health. So, what does mental health look like in the time of coronavirus?
Life at a standstill
Since Johnson’s first instructions to the British public to stay at home, people have started experiencing the same symptoms of mental ill health as many of us with pre-existing conditions. Reports of constant fatigue, poor sleep, irritability, low mood, and even a rise in anger have appeared across social media. Now that physical connection has been prevented, creativity is needed to fulfil cravings for companionship; from talking through windows to playing murder mysteries via zoom calls, people have realised now more than ever that the connection between peers has a much bigger impact on your mental health than you realise as a neurotypical individual. Even the kink community has seen a dip in business as people are simply craving human connection over sexual gratification. Our entire way of life has shifted to a state of societal survival, with mental wellbeing as our core focus. It’s not the same for everyone, however.
In a society where 1% of people hold 83% of all wealth, nothing is created equal- and pandemics are no different. The different ways people have been affected by lockdown life has opened eyes to the stark inequality’s minorities face. Black people are discriminated against for wearing masks. Asian people are banned from businesses, harassed in public and demonised in the media. Disabled people are ignored by the masses who dismiss coronavirus deaths as an “unfortunate inevitability”, blatantly devaluing high risk people. Most of all, the class disparity has never been more apparent; “unskilled” jobs taken on by working class (often foreign) people are now considered essential, but they rarely come with the appropriate pay packet. Scornful strangers have often taken to social media to slam people seemingly breaking lockdown rules by using public transport or walking outside, despite the fact that these activities are both permitted and necessary for people who cannot afford to work from home or take pay cuts and job losses. The disconnect between those who have and those who don’t is clear when you look at people taking Zoom calls from their back garden, while complaining that the Amazon Prime delivery driver didn’t stand 6 feet away from their front door. To a certain extent, the only equaliser between these groups is mental health- more specifically, the rise of people experiencing poor mental health and the collective discovery of the lack of mental health resources available to the public.
For those of us with pre-existing conditions, both mental and physical, lockdown has presented a whole host of new challenges. Routines have been destroyed. Cleanliness has been called into question. Resources have been limited. Human contact has been prevented. Symptoms of mental illness have become “necessary measures”- like obsessive cleaning, social isolation, and unhealthy eating habits. Support systems have been taken away, whether it be a friend to spend time with or a therapist to talk to. We’ve had to find a whole new set of coping strategies in what feels like the blink of an eye. Spiking anxiety has been evident everywhere, from weeks of panic buying to TikTok memes about spraying strangers with bleach if they cough in public. (Don’t do that.) For those of us already struggling with it, the doomsday headlines and angry discourse over dates has meant more bad days than good, exacerbating an already poor situation. While public campaigns like Britain Get Talking have shed light on the importance of social connection, mental health of a more complex nature seems to be left by the way side; nothing has been said of those with OCD and the rise in harmful repetitive cleaning behaviours; or those with dissociative disorders struggling to maintain a grip on reality when nothing is normal; or the rise in psychosis symptoms in people with schizophrenia due to social isolation and increased stress. With no non-urgent medical appointments allowed in person, those who need therapy are being forced to move digital to maintain their support, bringing all sorts of access issues with it (from having the right equipment, to feeling comfortable with technology, to even the uncomfortable situation of conducting therapy from within your home or “safe space”). Those who were on a waiting list or wishing to seek help are now left stranded, with cries being dismissed as unimportant in the current context despite lockdown being a breeding ground for poor mental wellbeing. In terms of students, a frustrating situation has been developing; those with a “pre-existing situation” who have fought for accessibility in the form of recorded lectures, extended deadlines and empathetic teachers have seen their situations being taken seriously only when the neurotypical masses can relate. The anxiety caused by the unknown when it came to exams and graduation hasn’t yet ceased and the already high levels of mental ill health in students has skyrocketed since teaching was suspended. There are many factors to consider when discussing and covering the crisis, but mental health should not take a step back in the conversation- neither for those experiencing new symptoms, or those with pre-existing conditions and worsening symptoms.
When we do discuss mental health nowadays, it tends to be in the context of self-improvement. If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen that the reaction to the sudden availability of a precious resource known as “free time” has been divided. Some have decided that this is the ultimate opportunity to better ourselves; learning all the skills we promised ourselves we would at new year, grasping new languages, or picking up new hobbies. To them, lockdown represents a golden opportunity that only the lazy would pass up in favour of playing Animal Crossing until 4am.
The flip side movement was arguably born in response to these high-flyers. They talk about the pandemic like a war zone, claiming our bodies and minds are in a constant state of trauma, which is why we’re experiencing poor sleep patterns, lack of appetite, vivid dreams, and consistent fatigue. To them, this pandemic is a faceless enemy that cannot just be ignored by taking up a new hobby.
But is there a middle ground? Between calls of “do something or waste time” and “do nothing, it doesn’t matter”, there lies a healthy balance between using your time wisely while being empathetic to yourself when you just want to relax. It’s true that this is a stressful situation, for some more than others, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up every activity you love in the name of self-preservation. Similarly, just because you find yourself with a lot of free time, doesn’t mean you have to fill every waking moment. Your mental health is a fluctuating beast that will crave different things day by day, and the healthiest thing you can do is allow it. Let yourself have quiet days. Let yourself pick up a new hobby. Let yourself be alone. Let yourself reach out to others. There is no rulebook when it comes to quarantine. Every mind is different and just like we all have to live our lives our own way, we must live through this uniquely. The one thing I’ve been reminded of in this bizarre situation is that everyone has different coping mechanisms. There are days where I sit on Zoom calls with my friends for hours chatting about nothing, but then there are days where I avoid people completely- and both of those versions of me are perfectly okay. Life is a constant flux and just because the normal isn’t 9 to 5 anymore, doesn’t mean your brain stops working.
With lockdown slowly lifting and life looking like it could find a new normal by the end of the year, soon we’ll have a chance to reflect on how we responded to the worst health crisis in a generation. We will bring companies and politicians to account. We will honour the lives lost by living ours as well as possible. We will hug each other once again, and remember how wonderful it is to be human.
Until then, the only thing we can truly do, is take care of ourselves and the ones we love. Reach out if you can. Get some sun if it’s safe. And please, be kind to yourself.
Words by Kat Padmore.