I’ve balanced varying degrees of depression throughout my life, the worst being in my late teens where it lead to a drop out of University. But throughout these past two years, I’ve swayed back and forth between thinking I was doing okay (I mean, I wasn’t. But I was clinging on to thinking that I was) to really struggling. And this winter has been particularly tough. Not sort of, or quite a bit hard. Like seriously and unavoidably, not okay.
This time, winter has brought on less typical hibernation for me, and more hermitess style tendencies. A rapidly declining mental state. Severe feelings of loneliness. Anxiety. A withdrawal from social contact. Insomnia and a lack of motivation or energy. But it hasn’t just been me going through it. I’ve watched friends and family experience similar things this winter, indicating that the decline in my own mental health and general levels of ‘okayness’ hasn’t been singular to just me.
Why this winter against all the others has there felt such a strong trend in declining mental health amongst myself and people I know? Some have suggested it’s seasonal depression. Maybe this has had a role to play in my own mental health this winter. But I think the seasonal blues have been a final cherry on top of an accumulating, two years baking in the oven, shit covid cake.
Covid-19 and Chronic Stress
When it all first happened, it was rubbish. By the end of 2020, utter crap. We went into 2021 with renewed hope – it’s gotta be less crappy by the end of 2021, surely? Nope, how wrong could we be. More shit. And then winter 2021/22 struck. Nearly two years of navigating Covid-19 altered life, and deep, dark, cold winter comes along combined with the wildly infectious omicron strain. And this time, it wasn’t the same as 2020, or early 2021, where a little hope remained. This time I thought to myself, is this all ever going to get better?
And that’s the prolonged mental state many of us have been in for the last two years. Of not knowing when it’s all going to get any better and if normality of some kind will return. And the reality is, our pre-covid versions of life may never be the same again, and may have already altered drastically to the point of unrecognition.
Of course this is going to take a toll on mental health. Human beings weren’t designed to withstand chronic levels of stress, change, worry and anxiety to this degree and for this extent of time. There has been no chance to recover, and the stress just hasn’t let up. And chronic stress can lead to a number of symptoms and associated stress disorders, such as; intrusive thoughts, social withdrawal, negative mood, difficulty sleeping, low energy, depression, self-medicating, and that’s just highlighting a few. So no, I don’t think my depression is a seasonal thing this time. I think that the Covid-19 pandemic has exponentially affected and altered mental health for a lot people.
Covid-19 has been a fucking nightmare
We’re coming out the other side mentally and emotionally exhausted. Slightly (or greatly) more depressed and anxious. We may have experienced bereavement. Furlough or unemployment. Loneliness. A disruption in living circumstances, relationship or career. Altered routines. We’re coming out of this into a post-pandemic life that still feels very difficult and uncertain. Covid-19 has been a fucking nightmare for us all. And two years down the road, we’re still talking about, being affected by, and navigating a world where Covid-19 is a constant conversation and kick in the proverbial ball sack. And most of all, mental health and wellbeing has undoubtingly declined because of it, on a global scale.
How a pandemic impacts mental health globally
A US study conducted in May 2020, saw a 10-fold increase in young adults between 18-24 years old reporting suicidal thoughts, in comparison to a study conducted in 2014. And this was right at the beginning of the pandemic. And a poll by NPR found that half of American households reported at least one person in the home who had experienced serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress, or sleep in recent months.
In January 2021, 41% of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder. In Great Britain, adults experiencing some form of depression has doubled since pre-pandemic rates. Research overwhelmingly suggests that mental health issues have risen throughout, and will continue to rise as a result of the Covid pandemic. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts have all increased.
Reduced social interaction has a psychological impact. Depression, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and sleep issues are also often manifested from loneliness. And so loneliness negatively affects health on a number of different levels. Adults and young people are more likely to use negative coping mechanisms to combat loneliness, such as self-harm or spending increased time on social media. And studies conducted so far show consistently that young, rather than older people, are most vulnerable to increased psychological distress, maybe due to a greater need for social interactions.
Chronic loneliness isn’t just brought on by a lack of social interaction, or social isolation. It’s also born from ‘a lack of meaning’ in life. Leading to deliberate withdrawal and detachment from the outside world to achieve a sense of safe environment. As I described to some friends recently, it’s like an uphill journey, or walking through a thick swamp, trying to break free of that self-brought on social withdrawal. I’d become so used to isolating, reduced in-person interaction, limited time away from home, worrying about going out. That staying in had become my haven.
Many of us have become a little more anxious during Covid-19, but for some, the pandemic has sparked or heightened mental health problems. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, a manifestation of anxiety leading to cleaning compulsions and contamination obsessions, is predicted to worsen from the stress of Covid-19, and feeling anxious because of threats of a variant strain.
The Lancet Regional Health – Americas reported that even before 2020, mental disorders were leading causes of the global health-related burden. With depressive and anxiety disorders being the largest contributors, and also two of the most disabling. And in Spring of 2020, figures indicated 27.8% of adults had elevated symptoms of depression, which was more than three times higher than in 2017-2018 studies, By spring 2021, this figure had increased to 32.8% of adults. So what about now, here in 2022, nearly two years later? The data on 2021 is still pouring in. But unfortunately it all suggests that we’re already heading into a mental health pandemic, post Covid pandemic, of epic proportions.
Are we facing a mental health pandemic, post Covid-pandemic?
History has shown that the mental health impact of disasters outlasts the physical impact, suggesting today’s elevated mental health need will continue well beyond the coronavirus outbreak itself. The affects of psychological distress have been known to last up to three years after an outbreak. Economic downturns, job losses and financial struggles have been associated with a long-lasting decline in mental health. And strategies such as quarantine do cause symptoms such as post-traumatic stress, depression and insomnia, which last far longer than the physical quarantine itself.
I know, I wish the figures were prettier too. But unfortunately they aren’t. And I think it’s really important that we don’t underestimate or minimise the impact that Covid-19 has had and will have on our mental health.
A need for mental health support
We’re now two years into this, and we’re still definitely ‘in it’. And worryingly whilst the demand for mental health support is increasing, and research clearly shows that the effects on our mental health will continue and last far longer the Covid-Pandemic. According to a new WHO survey the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. This is an even more serious issue when combined with the fact that many people don’t ask for support, because they don’t think that their problem is serious enough or are not in a position to reach out for that support.
In September, I phoned the UK’s NHS support line because a friend was at crisis point. They were already involved with Steps for Change – which is an extremely helpful service – but it is (by Steps for Change’s own admission) slow, with long waiting lists, and involves sessions sometimes 7-10 days apart and it is not designed for those in crisis. This person needed immediate, professional support.
So where does someone who needs urgent support turn? As I discovered, there are a lot of amazing mental health organisations that assist someone in that moment of crisis. And what they do should be celebrated day in, day out. Because they truly are life savers. However, people shouldn’t have to reach the ledge to then receive help to be talked down from it. People should be supported in not getting close to the drop in the first place. There is clearly a desperate need for better. Because what we do have available to us, is extremely slow, limited and not enough.
A deeper level of sympathy, understanding, conversation and support
We may have all been in the same storm, but we haven’t all been in similar boats nor all had the same equipment to navigate the rough sea. But maybe there is a slight glimmer of hope from all of this (I’m really trying to find one here, guys). In that we can all appreciate that the storm has been utter shit. And that stormy days, weeks, months or years, take a toll on our mental health.
Maybe it will lead to a greater understanding of mental health problems coming out of the covid-pandemic. Because in some way or another over the past two years, it would be impossible for us not to have experienced some level of low mood, dis-interest in life, form of depression, anxiety or anxiousness, struggle to interact, force ourselves into post-covid versions of ourselves again. We can all relate to these things in some way. And so mental health, can hopefully be a little more understood by the masses. A lot more unashamedly spoken about. And that deeper level of sympathy, understanding and support, was needed on a wider scale.
The global decline in mental health and wellbeing is something we should all be deeply concerned about.
Post-pandemic life may create a little more open conversation and awareness on mental health and the varying degrees and forms it can manifest in. But in reality, unless something is done to support the state of mental health across the globe, we are heading from one pandemic, straight into another, and the figures are already rapidly rising.