Your say / coronavirus

‘There needs to be more done to protect and support people’s mental health’

By yolanda salvat, Wednesday May 6, 2020

Isolation, sadness, fear, panic, grief, worry and even anger are some of the emotions that people are facing these days.

We shouldn’t try to force ourselves to experience the mandatory happiness we are used to in order to be accepted or to appear strong.

It is okay not to feel okay, and it is okay to look for help.

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This is what psychologists like Jess Walker, a psychologist from Knowle, says. She says that these emotions are a usual response to traumatic situations – and the world right now is in the middle of a trauma.

People cope with trauma differently, so that is why people might be experiencing something completely different to a friend or family member.

“Some of us have better developed coping strategies than others, some of us might have less to worry about than others,” says Jess. “Whatever you are experiencing is something unique to you and you shouldn’t feel ashamed.”

Jess Walker is based in Knowle. Photo: Bristol Psychology Services

Isolation and loneliness may be more likely to impact on those who live alone, but in the same way it can affect someone who lives in a busy house but feels terribly alone.

People of working age may be facing issues around loss of income and security.

Children may find it hard adjusting to life without their peers around, at a time when friendships can be so crucial in establishing a sense of identity and belonging.

Relationships will be tested due to the lack of personal space many people are experiencing, with loss of the usual routes to get away or let off steam.

For elderly people, being in one of the most vulnerable categories may be increasing levels of health anxiety and stress, and this may also be impacting on their families who can’t be with them, or who are worried about what might happen to them.

Older people may feel isolated. Photo: Bristol Ageing Better

And then there are those who have lost or will lose loved ones, and will be working through their grief in the times ahead.

The suicide rate in the UK has increased since this pandemic. The influence of feelings like loneliness can be one of the greatest contributors to mental health problems, and it is expected that after this crisis the mental health services are likely to be busier than ever. Already under resourced and stretched to capacity, this is likely to put a huge strain on the system.

Some of the issues psychologists might see will be an increase of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

Coronavirus mental health effects may be long-lasting and may also exacerbate pre-existing issues. Furthermore, it is expected to bring social and economic costs that are likely to be deep and pervasive. This is something that needs to be urgently considered.

But humans are surprisingly resilient. Jess says: “We only have to look at events in history to tell us that. We will bounce back, many people may thrive through making healthy changes to their world because of this situation.

“For example, it has been wonderful to see the re-emergence of localism and community spirit. This helps us stay connected and to feel safe, and this is something we can consciously carry forward into the new world ahead of us.”

Community spirit has been one positive of the lockdown. Photo: Room 13 Hareclive

Coronavirus pandemic has brought so much uncertainty. We are faced with a threat that we don’t know much about, or how long it will go on for. When humans are faced with threat we go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode.

This is a primal response that served us well in times past, when we might have had to survive in the wild and have been faced with a predator.

“We become hyper-aware of our surroundings, vigilant against attack,” says Jess. “Our stress levels rise, keeping us in this anxious state. If we stay like this for too long, we can become exhausted and overcome with difficult emotions”.

Instead, we should have to find ways to reduce these feelings. Jess recommends some simple exercises to bring to practice when we start feeling anxious:

  • Try to bring yourself back to the present moment. Do this by grounding yourself. This means being right here where you are right now, rather than carried away with the whirling mass of anxious thoughts. Take some deep breaths, fill yourself up and empty the air out completely and concentrate on your breath.
  • Take your shoes off and feel your feet in contact with the floor, or try pressing your hands together or stretching your arms widely apart.
  • Your senses can also help you: Look around for five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, to things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Using your senses can be a very powerful way to ground you in the moment.

But what about productivity? There are an awful lot of people who feel like they should be doing something productive.

Productivity gives a sense of purpose and achievement, which can be useful for maintaining our motivation and resilience.

However, productivity can be a source of anxiety is that – we all too often judge ourselves by much harsher standards than we might judge others.

Being productive can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning, having some breakfast or calling a friend. We don’t need to be constantly doing something.

If you want to start learning a new skill that is great, but if you are not one of those people, that is okay too. Make yourself a cup of tea, give yourself a hug and know that just getting through the day is absolutely enough to focus on.

Bristol energy

Sometimes just making a cup of tea is enough. Photo: Bristol Energy

And what about routine? Some people wakes up late, others try to get up early to feel they are not wasting the day, but some days can feel harder than others and on those days you should want a more relaxed schedule.

Having a schedule works for some people but not for everyone, so just ensure that having a structure is meaningful and useful for you.

Our needs have changed since coronavirus, we are surviving and we have to adapt our needs to this new situation. You may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a triangle of needs that starts with the most basic: Physiological – which means things like air, water, food, clothing, sleep and reproduction.

It then moves on to safety – security, employment, resources, health and property, working towards higher level needs such as love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualisation.

During a time of crisis and trauma we can’t necessarily focus on those higher level needs that we might usually be working towards achieving.

We need to focus on those needs in the bottom one or two layers:  physiological and safety needs. Your schedule may look very different to how it might have done pre-coronavirus. Perhaps it just contains things like when you will eat, when you might get outside, what you need to do to prepare for sleep.

That is okay. You are surviving.

We have to add the role of the media, we are surrounded the whole day with coronavirus updates. We can’t disconnect.

We are hearing all the day about the death toll, people’s behaviour during lockdown, discussions about political leaders actions, and all kind of reports.

News around coronavirus in Bristol and beyond can be overwhelming. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

In a situation where we are feeling the fear, the constant barrage of negative news can heap additional pressure and worry on us. So what we can do is reduce our intake of the news.

Do you really need rolling updates? Perhaps once a day for a few minutes will suffice instead. You can try to find funny stories or limit your time on social media, particularly before bed.

You can also switch off from all news and screens, delete apps from your phone such as Facebook or news apps. You can still access these things but you will have to actively search for them and it perhaps makes you more conscious aware of your actions.

Now the Government is focused on physical health needs, and it is justifiable and necessary. But we will have to start considering the ongoing impact of the pandemic on peoples’ lives, not just those on the frontline but in every part of our society.

There needs to be more done to protect and support people’s mental health.

And we should rethink the role of counsellors, therapists and psychologists and start to recognise them.

All key workers should be recognised for their works – including counsellors, therapists and psychologists. Photo: Hack The Pandemic

They are supporting the front line staff as well as all the people who requires it, what is great but often they do it as a volunteers and we can’t forget they also have lives, families, basic needs that must be met and they are also trying to deal with coronavirus effects as much as their clients are.

Yolanda Mir is a Bristol24/7 intern from Catalonia

Main photo: Ellie Pipe

Read more: Impact of lockdown measures on some of Bristol’s most vulnerable citizens

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