Many people’s mental wellbeing is suffering, but some have felt an unexpected boost, writes Hannah Sargeant
Published in the i paper
When the lockdown was announced, the prospect of my mental health doing a total 180-degree for the better seemed impossible. There were warnings from the start that people’s minds would suffer from the isolation we all had to endure to save lives.
Yet much to my own surprise (and profound sense of relief), I have experienced the longest, most consistent period devoid of anxiety and depression in years. And it turns out I’m not alone.
In early January I left London, where I had been living for the past eight years, to take refuge in a wooden hut that had been erected in the back of my parents’ garden in a Leicestershire village.
While I was lucky to have a place to hide away, I didn’t feel particularly fortunate in my condition. As a 26-year-old preoccupied with developing my writing career and being more independent, I retreated home with my tail between my legs.
Pressure to perform to a self imposed ticking clock, served with a side order of relationship turmoil and a main dish of financial instability, had made a right meal out of my life in the city. My pre-existing anxiety disorder became debilitating and destructive, and manifested into a bout of deep depression that left me unable to work. When social distancing was finally enforced, my anxiety evaporated almost overnight.
No longer was I alone in my self isolation–almost everyone I knew was doing it. There was limited risk of “fomo” and no chance of being criticised for failing to keep with social obligations.
The narrative on social media shifted from a stream of glossy self-optimisation that made me feel under more pressure to not “worry if you’re not being productive”. Somewhere along the way, the wholesome image of home-made bread became an iconic symbol of millennial self-care–and much as this might be mocked, it helped.
Admittedly, disclosing how good I’ve felt recently has not been an easy revelation to make. Speaking on how you’ve benefited in a time of such loss and struggle runs the risk of coming across as ignorant or offensive, and for a while this added a layer of guilt to my wave of content.
Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said that “lockdown is storing up problems which could then lead to a tsunami of referrals”.An open letter to the Prime Minister from leaders of 30 mental health organisations published yesterday says “the crisis is affecting many young people in ways that will risk long-term consequences for their mental health”, something that’s true for people of all ages.
Some of my own friends have struggled and panicked about paying rent, losing their jobs or homeschooling. Thousands of people have been grieving for their loved ones, unable to find the acceptance and healing that can come from being able to attend a funeral.
My respite does seem to put me in the minority, but it underlines how everyone is different and how personalised approaches to care and therapy will be needed to treat those who have been affected badly by the past two months.
Others have also felt unexpected benefits. Ivana, 36, a mother of two young twins, had struggled with anxiety and post-natal depression prior to the pandemic.
She tells i that the lockdown taught her how to decelerate and enjoy being in the present at home with her children. “Seeing how many people died of coronavirus also helped me to realise how much we worry about things that don’t matter,” she says.
James*, a 33-year-old freelance digital marketing consultant who had previously been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and OCD, has noticed some of his lowest anxiety levels during the lockdown.
“My partner can’t believe I haven’t had a major relapse,” he says. “It’s down to the pandemic being completely out of my control.”
An ongoing social study led by University College London on the mental impact of the crisis on 85,000 respondents has found that anxiety levels have dropped since lockdown began, though the survey is not representative of the UK population.
Dr Sarah Barker, a consultant clinical psychologist based in London, has also noted an improvement in some of her clients’ mental health.
“Those with social anxiety are saying that knowing everyone else is at home in lockdown reduces unfavourable comparisons,” she explains. “There is another large group of people who find working from home makes life much less stressful in terms of work/ life balance. Many clients were working long hours, juggling childcare and had long commutes.”
A question mark now hangs over how we will readapt to life post-pandemic. I crave being able to hold friends and family close again, but the thought of slipping back into undesirable territories is a genuine cause for concern. Lockdown has – if only temporarily – dismantled a structure that for many of us simply wasn’t working and was making some of us ill. I’ve learnt that I’m not going to fall apart ifI spend a period on my own. By slowing us down, this pandemic has given many people a very rare opportunity to improve their quality of life. Let’s not waste it – and be ready to help the others who have suffered.