The pandemic has ravaged the world, testing the healthcare sector to its limits. As well as the physical toll, there has been a mental health reckoning. Perhaps the silver lining of long months of lockdown and social distancing is that mental health awareness has become uppermost among the public and politicians. From great turmoil has come some positive change towards mental health. Here’s how the conversation has shifted.
1. Conversations around mental illness have been normalised
There was a time that talking about your mental or emotional state was taboo. But COVID-19 has changed the conversation, with more adults willing to admit when they’re not coping. “We’ve also seen a lot of talk around reaching out to helplines and discussions around feeling low and lonely, and reaching out to people. All these are quite positive shifts,” says Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director for England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation. While the headline figures – one in five UK adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic, compared to one in ten before – are worrying, the fact that people are willing to say they’re struggling is a mammoth step forward.
2. We’re talking more to friends and family
The so-called Blitz spirit is often invoked when talking about coming through hardship, but crises can unite populations and communities. Mutual aid groups, set up on social media sites during the early stages of lockdown, were ostensibly about ensuring the vulnerable were able to receive food and care. However, they extended to community-based support groups that showed an increase in empathy within neighbourhoods. Knowing there are others out there, willing to lend a hand when needed, can improve people’s mental or emotional state at a time of great uncertainty. “What we’ve seen is people coming together, supporting each other through digital means and remote calls,” says Kousoulis. “We shouldn’t lose that motivation to connect with each other and support each other.”
3. Remote access to mental health is easier than ever
Though there’s little substitute for in-person treatment for those living with a mental health problem, the need for social distancing has meant health services have developed remote access to treatment, crucial for those people finally admitting to not coping. Many people are fearful about visiting a psychologist in person, but can instead book appointments and speak to experts from the comfort and familiar surroundings of their own home. Removing the barriers to entry to treatment for those who believe they may be suffering from a mental illness can help them seek out help when it’s most needed.
4. More immediate help is provided through digital means
As we spend more time on our devices, we’re turning to apps for every part of our lives, including fostering a positive sense of wellbeing. That’s vital as four in five people in the UK are worried about the effect coronavirus is having on their life, nearly half reporting high levels of anxiety. Apps such as Calm, which offers guided meditation programmes that users can follow to improve their mental health awareness, can keep minimal mental health issues under control. Be Mindful, another app, provides an NHS-approved ten-step course of thirty-minute long mindfulness sessions. Yet these apps aren’t a silver bullet, warns Kousoulis. “I’m a little bit in two minds around the trends in digital mental health,” he says. “In some terms the rise of apps is a positive trend, but most of these apps don’t have a real evidence base behind them. Apps work best if they’re guided. We call that a blended model; you’re doing a bit on your own and a bit with others.”
5. We’re recognising the need to treat the cause, not the problem
Mental illness is now being seen as something that should be addressed at its root cause, rather than waiting for it to manifest itself to the point when living with a mental health problem becomes difficult. As with physical health, early intervention is key to nipping a problem in the bud before it becomes unmanageable. “People talk about a mentally healthy UK on the back of COVID-19, but we can’t achieve a mentally healthier nation if we’re only focusing on the sharp end of the stick, people experiencing crisis,” cautions Kousoulis. “We need to be thinking about mental health in the spaces and the settings we spend most of our time in.”
6. Employers are taking more of an interest
Anxiety about returning to the office and fears of being disconnected while working remotely are all taking their toll. Unmind, a mental health organisation, says eight in ten businesses recorded an increase in staff requests for mental health provisions during the lockdown. “We have certainly seen many companies in the commercial and not-for-profit sector, and the civil service, embracing that new reality and offering flexibilities to their staff, acknowledging the challenge of having children in the house or a housemate,” says Kousoulis. The rise in awareness by employers echoes similar shifts towards public mental health awareness. The Mental Health Foundation has run Mental Health Awareness Week every May since 2001. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it saw its most successful week to date. “I’m not sure COVID played a huge role in that,” Kousoulis concedes, “but maybe it shifted the conversation. We hear a lot of discussions around kindness and compassion and being kind to yourself.”
7. Governments are taking action too
Individuals’ reactions and community support can help when it comes to mental health awareness, but living with a mental health problem often needs governmental support. Around the world, governments are recognising they need to offer support and guidance on how to manage people’s mental or emotional state. In April, the UK government launched its Every Mind Matters campaign, in collaboration with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, encouraging people to look after their mental and physical wellbeing. But central governments are far from the only ones advising people how to look after themselves. Local government is providing support, posting information online and mailing out leaflets that help people manage their mental health more positively during these trying times.