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The Great COVID Mental Health Timebomb of 2020

The government’s handling of the COVID-crisis is easy to criticise. And – perhaps – it’s simplistic to assume that another British government in an alternative parallel universe is handling the crisis with greater aplomb. 

But we can ask: what has the UK government done to support mental health during the 2020 pandemic? Reports are continuously emerging to suggest that the mental health of the UK population has suffered as a result of the CoronaCrisis.

The roll-out of vaccines eases us tentatively towards a light at the end of the tunnel. But are we sleepwalking into a whole new pandemic of poor mental health?

Can the UK afford to ignore the mental health effects of COVID on workers and the broader population? 

The standpoint

If Thatcher was not for turning, then the Johnson government has been one of particularly wobbly foundations. From the undermining of their own guidelines to indecision, confusion, and a hocus-pocus roundabout of U-turns; the mental health of even the most mentally healthy has been tested during these most testing of times. 

The government has made considerable efforts to support the economic health of the nation. But – for argument’s sake – we might consider that some of those decisions have been made at the cost of the public health message.

Perhaps the inconsistency of the public health message is doing nothing other than exacerbating people’s health anxiety. 

Are we building a ticking timebomb of poor mental health for the years to come? Are we ignoring a mental health pandemic?

The mental health implications of the pandemic

Research at Health.org.uk has uncovered some astounding conclusions regarding the impact of COVID on the mental health of UK citizens. 

Before the pandemic, poor mental health accounted for almost 25% of all ill-health within the UK. If we look at this in terms of the economy, we have a significant proportion of the UK workforce suffering the effects of compromised mental health.

People can operate with poor mental health in the workplace for a while. But, in the long run, it becomes completely unsustainable.  

Compromised mental health is directly associated with physical illnesses such as hypertension, heart conditions, diabetes, and stress-related insomnia; all significant conditions that increase the potential for long-term work absence and, potentially, withdrawal from the jobs market altogether (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3062016/).

According to the same research, almost 70% of UK adults claimed they were somewhat or very anxious about the impact of the pandemic on their lives; with the most prevalent anxieties concerning their future and the effects of boredom.

And while worry is natural during periods of significant global instability, some sectors of society are more heavily impacted. 

COVID and mental health across society

The IFS claim that mental health conditions have been exacerbated by 8.1% on average as a result of the pandemic, with much higher impacts on young adults and women.

Those coping with poverty and unemployment, and people making do with low-quality/low-prospect work are at greater risk of diminished mental health as a result of the pandemic. 

Crowded accommodation as a result of poverty dramatically increases the risk of COVID transmission, while compounding the stressors that directly affect mental health (such as food-poverty, utilities-poverty, and an inability to work). 

There’s a lot of “we’re all in it together” that gets banded about. But are we REALLY all in it together? 

Are some of our population in it more than others?

What help is available to alleviate the COVID-related mental health impact on individuals? 

How has the government helped?

You could argue that the government’s response to the pandemic focuses on economic protectionism (rather than in support of individual wellbeing). You could also suggest that they’ve done very little to address the potential timebomb that is the waning mental health of the UK population. 

The initial lockdown was justified as a necessary measure to protect a collapsing NHS (that the same government had grossly underfunded for a decade). 

And you could also argue that many of the subsequent lockdown-easing policies protect businesses (while ignoring the science behind the public health message).

But what consideration is being given to alleviate the impact of the potential mental health pandemic likely to follow? There are a clear indicators of a link between poor mental health and COVID19.

Is the UK public just supposed to cope?

The Impact of Easing Lockdown

You could argue that the second wave of COVID was down to the government’s insistence that we go back to pubs and restaurants. But, throughout August, the levels of infection were generally stable and on the decline. 

A Sky article published on 19th November confirmed that you can trace the the majority of COVID infections to supermarkets, secondary schools, and universities. And yet, the government kept schools open despite the continuous swathes of infections shutting down entire school years and affecting teaching staff. 

Schools have remained open so that parents can go back to the workplace. But is it safe to go back to the workplace when children are contracting the virus and taking it home?

Recovery

Of course, without a strong economy, a country cannot thrive. 

But without a healthy workforce, there’s nobody to press the buttons and guide the machines: there’s nobody to lubricate the cogs of commerce. 

So what has the government done to ease the burden on the most impacted? 

The government response has been varied and inconsistent. And – on the whole – other than the piecemeal £500 million support for mental health services, it’s difficult to see how the UK government is treating the population’s mental health as a priority. 

There are plenty of pages of advice on the government website: do this if you have anxiety; do that if you’re autistic. 

But are a couple of pages of advice enough to prevent a mental health pandemic?

Can we afford to put mental health on the backburner?

Of course – it’s easy to criticise. It’s easy to highlight the problems and then drop the mic while making a smug exit.

At SupportRoom, we’re here to start the discussion. And if we can shout loud enough, perhaps our government will have to listen? Can we wait for the next pandemic of poor mental health to hit, or can we do something about it right now?

Is ignoring the science going to get us through this crisis? 

The real question is: can we afford to ignore the research? 

There’s no vaccine for mental health.