It’s mental health awareness week in the UK. Social and broadcast media are full of appeals for people to be kind to one another; to look out for one another; to talk to somebody – anybody – if you are feeling anxious, or alone or unhappy. And that is all absolutely to be applauded. For far too long, those who have struggled with poor mental health have been stigmatised and made to feel that their ill-health is somehow a sign of personal weakness or a lack of resilience. Thankfully, the whole tone of the conversation around mental health has changed. It is no longer taboo to talk about how we are feeling. We are actively encouraged to speak up if we are feeling stressed or low or having a bad patch. Funding and support for acute services for those who are most adversely affected by poor mental health is still inadequate, but it is slowly improving.
One of the big concerns around the current coronavirus crisis has been that lockdown and enforced isolation as a result of the need to socially distance or (in some cases) fully shield, will lead to a surge in demand for mental health and wellbeing support services. There is some anecdotal evidence to support this hypothesis, although it’s likely to be some time yet before we will know the full extent of the impact on overall demand for services. There is no doubt that some people will have experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of the interruption to contact with social support networks that is an inevitable consequence of the lockdown regulations. Interestingly, however, the lockdown may turn out to have been a good thing for young people who would normally have been completing high stakes exams in schools and universities at this time of year. With most of those exams either cancelled altogether, or downgraded insofar that their significance in calculating final degree grades or determining whether or not students progress into the next academic year has been significantly reduced, their role as a stressor has been almost completely removed. Similarly, students have almost all returned to their family homes and are now back in the social networks that are often (though not exclusively) less stressful than university or private rented accommodation.
For others, the sense of isolation that is an obvious danger of lockdown, has been mitigated by the ability to engage with family, friends and support services through any number of video call platforms across the internet and mobile phone networks. In my own experience, this has been the case with regular, weekly video calls to family members in Llanelli and Cambridge (as well as those a little closer to our home in Cardiff). Paradoxically, we have probably talked more to family members during the past eight weeks than we had done before all this. It’s another example of the profound changes that have taken place in some aspects of life during the crisis that are likely to continue in similar form afterwards. The quality, ubiquity and ease of use of these technologies is now such that the need to travel long distances to ‘see’ family and friends on the other side of the country has been significantly reduced. This is a potential win:win – closer and more regular interaction with family and friends and a reduced environmental impact as travel reduces.
Coronavirus is a horrible thing; and for those who have been infected and made ill by it, those who have lost loved ones as a result of it, or whose mental health has been impacted because of it, it’s a terrible thing and not at all to be downplayed or dismissed. But some of the social changes that have been brought about during the crisis may yet prove to have some lasting positive implications too.