I felt lucky, at the beginning. On a superficial level, lockdown didn't seem like a difficult adjustment for me. I work from home, and as a somewhat introverted person who enjoys their own company, the transition didn't feel like a shock to the system. I don't have children to worry about or people who rely on my care. My role in this pandemic was simply to limit the spread of the virus and not burden the NHS. So, how could I complain?
Every day, news articles, texts and broadcasts kept reminding me: “Stay home, stay safe. Wash your hands. Protect the NHS.” But among all this, I didn't see a single mention of mental health or wellbeing. Did this not matter? Yes, the risk of infection is frighteningly real; but surely we can't ignore the risk this pandemic has on mental health, right? It's dangerous to assume everyone is safe alone, with their minds.
Tools for healing
In 2014, I began surfing. Surfing gave me a focus, an exercise of the mind as well as the body. It offered me a rope in the pits of my depression, and quickly became one of my favourite activities. After realising the impact the coastline and oceans had on my mental health, I began integrating my life more and more with nature and the outdoors. This led me to join an outdoor mental health swim group in my local area. Here, I discovered like-minded people, who also used cold water as a tool for healing.
Together, we dashed into frigid seas and plunged into freezing rivers. The saltwater raised me from the darkness inside, enabling me to float above my critical thoughts and tread the surface where it felt safer. But, I realised that it wasn't just the cold water and nature that held me in difficult times. The community that came with cold water swimming was transformational. Their company was a place of safety and solace.
Lockdown took this all away, so as the days and weeks went by, the grip that I had on my mental health began slipping. Routines went out the window. My anxiety skyrocketed. Feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness and apathy grew exponentially. Without cold water - or my peers - to help me overcome these rising tides of big emotions, it was only a matter of time before these feelings would no longer be containable.
A few weeks in, it overflowed. I began disassociating, I would 'wake up', without having been asleep, finding I've lost hours from my day. Panic attacks occurred almost daily. Toxic coping mechanisms that I thought I had long put to bed, were now banging at the door.I've been sober for over six months; however, any will power to continue my sobriety almost vanished. Agoraphobia from adolescent years re-emerged. The language around "stay home, stay safe" gave me reasons to be scared of the outdoors; my terror made worse by being faced with masked people and anxious energies. Trips to the shops became daunting, and so food became scarce. Incentives to get out of bed were minimal. Reasons to continue dwindled. With my healthy strategies for coping unavailable, how was I supposed to manage?
Luckily, with the help of some wonderful people who care about me, I was eventually able to recognise that I wasn't coping and make some changes. I’m now calling friends on a regular basis and reaching out to my therapist when my thoughts become overbearing.
It concerns me that the government aren't doing more to support people's mental health, especially given the impact this pandemic has no doubt had on everyone. Maybe going forward we can at least use this as an opportunity to open up more honest discussions about it.
For me, two important issues, in particular, have been highlighted. Firstly, access to green spaces and clean air needs to be available to everyone; not just the ones who can afford it. It shouldn't be a privilege or a luxury to access the natural environment. Secondly, this pandemic has emphasised just how essential mental health services are. Even before Covid-19, they were stretched, underfunded and struggling to cope. We can’t ignore the need for a functional, well-funded mental health service any longer.
This author wishes to remain anonymous
If you need help or support with your mental health, or are worried about somebody else, there are a number of organisations listed here that may be able to assist you. There are also links to information about staying well during Covid-19 on this page.