By Steve Dechan
The impact the covid-19 pandemic has had on society is undeniable. From economic decline to political instability, the effect of the virus on communities is likely to be felt for years to come. However, one area of covid-related impact that has potentially been underplayed throughout this political and economic hurricane is that of mental health.
Some mental health campaigners are declaring the onset of a potential “tsunami” of psychological problems. Many leading academics are looking into this question in further detail, asking what has the impact been, and what can we expect.
A team of experts from the Universities of Sheffield, Ulster, Liverpool, UCL and Royal Holloway and Bedford College began tracking the mental health of 2,025 adults from March 23rd, the first week of lockdown, to the present day, the 10th month of lockdown, to highlight the true impact of covid-19 on mental health.
While the study is yet to finish, a handful of important patterns have already begun to emerge. In the first week of lockdown, higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress were reported. Similarly to other reports of a similar topic, it seemed that people who had previously suffered from mental health difficulties, who were poor, lonely, intolerant of uncertainty, prone to death anxiety or felt they had little control over their lives tended to do poorly during the pandemic and the complications it raised.
However, contrary to claims of a psychological ‘tsunami’, since the first lockdown, there has been an overall reduction in the number of people who report “above threshold” levels of psychiatric symptoms. This picture of adaptation and resilience has been a surprise to many and has been attributed to the strong social bonds developed during a crisis, with people coming together to help each other, creating a sense of belonging and a shared identity with neighbours.
In a separate study in Madrid, it was found that people who started the pandemic with good mental health often experienced “post-traumatic growth”; they used the pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate and change for the better, with their mental health continuing to be positively nurtured as a result.
The original study by British academics concluded that economic threats associated with the pandemic were the most likely to cause a decline in mental health, whereas exposure to the virus itself had little effect.
Because of its bleak implications, the “tsunami” narrative carries the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people worrying about their mental health as a result of being told they should do. However, by contrast, the greater understanding of the psychological effects of the pandemic developed by academic studies has great practical implications. Following this understanding, the government can alter policy to preserve the population’s mental health by protecting people from the largest threats and providing additional resources for those they know are at risk. This could mean focusing on the economic consequences of the pandemic and directing support to those who are most vulnerable, for example, those with pre-existing mental health difficulties, or those who have been hospitalised because of the virus.
Unfortunately, in the post pandemic society, we won’t be able to stop those suffering. So the question is, what can we do to assist them?
Kindness matters. You may recognise the expression “it is better to give than receive” but did you know this is backed up by research? The Mental Heath Foundation have a wonderful guide on how small acts of kindness or courtesies can really make a difference for people feeling vulnerable or struggling. The post-Covid world could be a great opportunity to improve our interactions with huge benefits to us all.
Looking to the long-term, studies such as the ones mentioned can help provide the framework for a UK-wide resilience strategy. When the next crisis of a similar scale befalls our nation, we will hopefully be better prepared to withstand the shock.