Mental health is a complex thing and Covid has shown that there are no simple answers when it comes to protecting it. We need to understand it better.
It’s another Covid Christmas and everyone you talk to has a story of plans thwarted, illness or worse. We’ve spent the last week doing lateral flow tests to check that none of us have it so my mum can come around this year. The shops are hopping round our way, and, based on a quick sally out yesterday, I would estimate that at least half the people in them, including some shop assistants, weren’t wearing masks, even after we reached 119,000 + cases. By the law of averages, some of them will be seeing elderly relatives or people with diabetes or asthma or whatever this Christmas.
I get the mental health argument about lockdowns, but whichever path of action you take in the pandemic there is a mental health impact – the mental health impact of quarantining, of anxiety about people you love getting the virus, of potential long-term implications, of overstretched health services, of giving someone vulnerable you love the virus, of grief… That’s not to mention the physical impact of ill health, chronic problems from being hospitalised and the unknown of Long Covid.
It seems to have become the fashion to talk about mental health over the last years. It has become a convenient get out of jail free card for politicians when in fact it is really just about the money. And yes, the financial impact of lockdown is immense and that has a knock-on impact on mental health and on jobs, particularly as there is no furlough scheme now. But how do you weigh that up against grief or long-term health implications or more cancelled operations for other conditions [a friend died of cancer after missing a check-up last year] or health workers’ well being, even if the numbers are reduced? One of my managers, a very fit man in his early 60s who used to do scuba and swim in rivers regularly, had three strokes due to Covid and has had to retire early a year later because his health is still hugely affected. What is the mental health impact of all of that on him and his family?
There are no answers really. None of this stuff is easy. Everyone’s mental health is damaged by the pandemic, whether they try to pretend it’s not happening or not. Working from home is better for some people’s mental health and worse for others. And how much of isolation and anxiety of working from home during a pandemic is due to remote working or the particular circumstances of working from home in a global pandemic? The economy is damaged whether or not we bring in restrictions because workers’ health, both physical and mental, and the economy are linked. There are no black and whites, only shades of gray.
Let’s hope that in the new year we as employers, as employees, as parents, as a society, actually focus on the longer term mental health impacts of the pandemic – particularly on children who may be just as worried about them or their family getting Covid as they are about school being closed down – fund mental health services properly and understand the many different circumstances we all face just a little better. The alternative is to let this thing divide us even more than it has already.