‘Freedom Day’ could be anything but for those of us with mental health problems
Although the last of Covid restrictions have been lifted, we will be seeing the mental health effects of the pandemic for years to come, says leading mental health charity
Today (Thursday 24 February 2022) sees the lifting of the last remaining restrictions brought in to help control the spread of coronavirus in England. The UK Government has made this decision in response to a reduction in cases of COVID and hospitalisations. As a result, people now no longer have to self-isolate if they test positive. Leading mental health charity Mind would like to remind everyone that the mental health impact of the pandemic is far from over, and to be mindful of others’ feelings, given not everyone will be celebrating today.
Many people with mental health problems - including depression, anxiety, and OCD – struggle with uncertainty and changing rules, and may remain fearful about things like attending busy events, travelling on public transport, and contracting the virus. Those classified as clinically extremely vulnerable – whether that’s due to mental health problems, physical health problems, or a combination of the two – have experienced an exceptionally difficult past two years, with many continuing to remain at home regardless of lockdowns lifting.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the mental health of the entire nation. People with existing mental health problems have seen their symptoms worsen while many others are struggling with their mental health for the first time. Mind’s research found that around one in three adults and over one in three young people said their mental health had got worse since the beginning of the pandemic. According to NHS data, the prevalence of depression has doubled. Despite the increased need, investment for mental health services has not risen in line with increased demand, and as a result out-of-areas care, bed shortages, long waiting times and people being turned away are all commonplace.
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, said:
“We know that the impact of the pandemic on our mental health is huge, and that self-isolation, quarantining and lockdowns all made it harder to cope, given strategies like seeing loved ones or exercising outdoors were limited or impossible. Many people will be pleased that some sense of normality has now resumed, as we learn to live with COVID.
“However, knowing that you’re rubbing shoulders with others who have tested positive for COVID could be a huge source of anxiety for those of us with mental health problems, particularly those with conditions like OCD related to contamination. It’s really important that all of us – including UK Government, healthcare staff, employers and the general public – are mindful that individual reactions and behaviours around restrictions lifting will vary, and some people with mental and physical health problems will be keen to stay at home despite the reduced threat associated with contracting the virus or becoming unwell as a result of it.
“The mental health effects of the pandemic will be long-lasting, particularly for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, redundancy or unemployment or missed schooling and exams. We know that our children and young people, those of us with pre-existing mental health problems, living in poverty and people of colour have been disproportionately affected. That’s why it’s so important that the UK Government urgently comes up with a cross-Government plan to tackle poor mental health alongside additional investment, including in culturally sensitive and trauma-informed treatments.”
John Lucas, 58, from Norwich, lives with multiple mental health problems including rapid cycling bipolar, PTSD and severe anxiety. He was shielding for the first 14 months of the pandemic due to his physical health problems, including prostate cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease with ischemia – which means he has undergone a quadruple heart bypass. The pandemic has negatively impacted his mental health, and he’s feeling anxious about restrictions ending.
“When I don’t socialise I can become depressed – so shielding alone for 14 months was very hard for me. I knew I needed to shield for my own health, but I was also anxious that if I didn’t, I could get the virus and pass it onto someone else.
“I go out occasionally now to do my food shopping and see friends, but I don’t do it very often. I sometimes visit a local coffee shop, but I sit outside because I feel stressed in crowded places – it just feels safer out there. My anxiety is just going to get worse now restrictions are ending.
“There’s an expectation we’ll all just go back to normal now, but I don’t think it’s the right time – and I don’t feel ready. I worry that a new variant of the virus may appear which is far worse than what we currently have, and now people aren’t going to be isolating more of us could become infected. I’m also feeling stressed about having to pay for coronavirus tests. How are people like me who are severely disabled and on benefits supposed to afford them? So, although restrictions are ending, I’ll still be restricting what I do for the foreseeable future.”
Dalia Reid, 39, from London has lived experience of anxiety and panic disorder. She has found the pandemic particularly difficult and is concerned restrictions ending may cause her further anxiety.
“If I’m celebrating anything on Thursday, it’s turning 40, not the restrictions ending. When the pandemic started, I barely left the house. I heard someone on the news say that Black and Asian people might be more likely to die if they contracted the coronavirus, but they didn’t understand why yet. As a black woman with a mixed raced child, it sent me into sheer panic. Eventually, research suggested this wasn’t due to genetics or ethnicity – but it caused me a lot of anxiety at the time.
“My husband, child and I all had coronavirus over Christmas. I had to take my husband to hospital last week because his breathing still wasn’t great – he’s still recovering from the fatigue. I worry about reinfection because being vaccinated doesn't necessarily mean you can't get the virus again. You can argue that fully vaccinated people are safer, but what about the children who aren’t? The panic triggers my anxiety, so tomorrow is going to be a challenge.
“Restrictions ending won’t change how I will act. I still feel very anxious in busy places as I fear I’ll catch the virus, so I’ll continue to avoid them. The last two years I’ve changed how I live because of my mental health and the restrictions, so I won’t be able to return to ‘normal’ instantly. I won’t be celebrating freedom just yet – I have to think about my mental health.
“Thankfully, I have a really good support system. My husband, friends and family know I have experienced mental health problems, so they haven’t put pressure on me to do anything I don’t feel comfortable with. It’s so important to be mindful of each other at this time. For many of us, this experience will be like learning to walk again. We’re all on a different journey, and we all need to do it at our own pace. It’s not just about our country being in recovery, we’re all in recovery – and we can only get through it if we support each other.
Catherine, 23, from Reading has lived experience of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). She’s anxious that when restrictions end, her mental health will be impacted.
“Before the pandemic, my OCD made it difficult for me to be in busy communal settings. So, lockdowns reduced my anxiety somewhat – but avoiding situations like that isn’t healthy in the long term. I thought, when they get rid of restrictions my anxiety might just go away – but it’s been a long time since then. It’s different now.
“My OCD has always been about contamination, but it wasn’t about viral contamination until the pandemic hit. When restrictions eased, I was terrified. It was like a switch in my head had been flicked, and there was no way of turning it off. I couldn’t go into supermarkets without ensuring I was two meters apart from everyone – I was fixated on that length, thinking I would catch coronavirus if I got any closer.
“Thankfully, I have a relatively normal social life now, but I still feel restricted. I always wear a mask or two in public, wash my groceries and sanitise my hands a lot. I feel sad when I see some people living life like they were before, because I’m not able to live in freedom just yet. As much as I want to let myself free, I feel less able to now because of restrictions ending. Going out into society knowing people will have coronavirus is stopping me from being able to fully get back to what my life was like before the pandemic.”