Although many have experienced differing levels of low mood, anxiety and depression throughout this pandemic, there is no denying the sense that this is a global, shared experience. Often, when poor mental health arises, we tend to become quite insular and immersed in the intensity of our own personal crisis, particularly if we are affected directly by the pandemic. Still, the external nature of this ever-constant threat means that although we may not be related to those we hear of becoming ill and passing away, we can understand and empathise the impact this can have on the lives of others. In this shared sense of loss, frustration, helplessness and doom is, some believe, a sense of community. This sense of community and shared experience is something we can leverage and focus on in a wider context to think ‘globally’ and shift attention when we find ourselves being overly introspective.
The centre for mental health reported late last year that an additional 500,000 people will require some form of mental health treatment in the next 2 years due to the prolonged effects of the pandemic. In fact, Steven Taylor – a professor at the University of British Columbia believes as many as 10-15% of people won’t return to their ‘normal’ psychological state they were familiar with before the pandemic. This existential threat that is present with coronavirus has served as the ‘straw that broke the camels back’ for many people, as they find themselves struggling to cope with issues they otherwise dealt with before. Of course, with more people attempting to access mental health treatment both on the NHS and privately, those with most severe manifestations must be treated quickly – this includes self-harm and suicidality. However, there is also the impact of long waiting lists which delay treatment for individuals, and the timely uptake of treatment is crucial to prevent further degradations in people’s mental outlook.
There have been increased Google searches in the last year for information on suicide and self-harm, and whilst that remains a scary indicator of where people are at with their mental health, there have also been increases in interests of meditation, self-help, relaxation techniques, and contact details for therapists. Part of the issue in uptake and stigma around mental health services is that, generally, there is a view that one must only address areas of their health when there is pathology. For example, people often only get a blood test or see their doctor when they are ill or develop symptoms of some illness or conditions.
This reactive model limits strain on healthcare services to screen otherwise healthy individuals, but the diagnosis of any condition thereafter is a throw of the dice – is the cancer detected in a symptomatic individual further down the line? A proactive model to healthcare, and mental healthcare, is to have regular check ups to assess the status of health before pathology arises. We have this with doctors, with dentists… but how many people have a semi-regular assessment with a therapist, counsellor or psychologist? Behind every mental health crisis are issues which started small, yet the delay or neglect of treatment surely builds these into a fundamental manifestation of depression, self-harm, or ultimately suicidality.
Although the pandemic rages on, there are things we can do to make a big impact on our outlook. When in the midst of a personal crisis, or even a bad day – we tend to be cynical, pessimistic and doubtful about any claims that deep breath or movement can change our outlook. The truth is, getting active, learning self-reflection and relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation, and even journaling, can have a profound impact. Unpacking the mind of clutter, stress and existential dread in journals can be extremely helpful, especially in the context of looking back at weeks, months, even years, and seeing progress, regression and changes in mood. Sometimes though, the mental toll of what is going on can be too much and will ‘overpower’ some of the techniques mentioned. In these circumstances, acceptance and resolve can be found in ‘being with what is’ – what would it be like to sit with this emotion? How is it to sit and experience anger, sadness, helplessness, anxiety? Feeling the somatic manifestation of these symptoms, noticing them ebb, flow, resurge and reside is key to many mindfulness practices, but provides real insight into the mind. Noticing the impermanence of any experience, good or bad, can be attained by paying lose enough attention to your experience, and thus gaining the insight that ‘this too, shall pass’.