The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental wellbeing of many. Most of us have had to adjust to a new working situation, remote learning, health and safety concerns, and even the loss of loved ones.
Along with the economic fallout and various social upheavals we’ve all gone through, many experts are grimly certain that we’re going to be seeing a major increase in mental health issues in the coming years.
Some have even gone as far as to refer to it as an imminent “second pandemic”.
Although millions of people across the globe have been vaccinated, it seems like there is finally light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. However, the situation with mental health is not exactly good news, but it all makes sense.
We’ve had over 18 months of lockdown restrictions, of being denied almost all the pastimes and experiences we enjoy, of being unable to meet friends or family, of having so little control over our own lives and of any journey out of the house being inherently risky. Whether you have experienced the pain of losing someone to the virus or not, all of these things alone are bound to cause your mental health to suffer.
Unfortunately for us, our brains haven’t evolved to handle long-term stress too well. It has finite resources for doing so. The harder our brain has to work to suppress the impact of stress, the less time and resources it has to dedicate to maintaining itself and its crucial system.
This is why stress can be, and often is, a key factor in the development of mental health problems. Stress can exhaust the mood-regulating brain cells, resulting in the onset of depression. Stress can overstimulate key parts of the brain’s aforementioned threat detection system, resulting in an excess of illogical, unnecessary fear, which is what we know as anxiety.
Attempts to mitigate or prevent the experience of stress can urge us to “self-medicate”, which can lead to addiction.
In pre-pandemic times, the average person would have experienced stress but would have had many options when it comes to combating it. Social interactions, recreational activities and entertainment, travel, sports and exercise, alone time, speaking with a family or friend are all tried and tested means of lowering stress.
However, these are also the outlets that were quite often unavailable during periods of heavy restrictions.
Lockdowns mean that just about everyone seems to be experiencing more stress than ever, whilst simultaneously having little to no means of reducing it.
Demand for mental health supports and suicide prevention services have soared across Ireland throughout the pandemic.
The revelation from Ireland’s first Professor of Public Mental Health, Ella Arensman, confirmed escalating anecdotal concerns that the pandemic is having a major impact on mental health through extended isolation, personal fears about the virus, lack of social interaction and financial stress.
Studies are now underway to determine the impact lockdowns have had on mental health. Meanwhile, suicide statistics for 2020 won’t be published for another three years.
A recent online survey conducted by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) found that 57.1% of respondents reported that their mental health and wellbeing had been negatively affected by Covid-19, with 41.7% rating their overall life satisfaction as “low”.
Nicole Forster is the director of the mental health text helpline, 50808, which was launched to the public in June 2020. Since then, they have had over 50,000 conversations with people in Ireland.
She said, “Since March 2020, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of conversations where people have shared how Covid-19 and its restrictions have impacted their lives. We’re now engaging texters in around 5,000 conversations per month, with each conversation lasting anywhere between 20-75 minutes, sometimes longer depending on the nature of the situation.”
Medical experts warned that negative feelings have been amplified by the loss of normal processing systems during the pandemic such as funerals, social gatherings and household visits.
Unfortunately, there are many different reasons behind the pandemic’s ill effect on mental health. The way that Covid-19 has affected people ranges from financial challenges, child care struggles, unstable/unsafe accommodation arrangements, isolation, separation from loved ones, loneliness, anxiety about school, fear about becoming unwell and many more reasons,” Forster said.
While there is evidence of a rise in mental health-related pleas for help throughout the pandemic, there is no indication that the number of suicides has escalated significantly above levels experienced pre-Covid-19 in 2018 or 2019.
Forster has found that there has been an “increase in the number of people texting us about living situations that don’t feel safe to them”. She said, “The lack of safety that some texters are living with is created by the behaviours of partners, landlords, parents, children and sometimes neighbours.”
Many of us are looking forward to when life can finally go back to “normal”, especially with the majority of restrictions having been lifted at this stage. However, we will be carrying the effects of months of isolation into those activities, including a sense that our wits will need sharpening and our social skills will need dusting off.
The mental effects of lockdown have been profound. Social isolation has been proven to cause people’s mental health to deteriorate, even if they have no history of previous mental health issues. Along with this drop in mood, loneliness has been associated with a host of cognitive problems, including issues with concentration, fatigue and stress.
If you’re feeling the impacts of the pandemic, 50808 is “available to anyone who’s in need of support, regardless of what issues or challenges they’re experiencing. For some people, school stress may seem like a small or insignificant struggle, but for the person living with that stress, it can be all-consuming”.
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