It is Mental Health Awareness Week from 18-24 May, and mental health is a very relevant topic right now. The pressures of isolation, changes in routine, and feelings of loneliness are being felt keenly throughout the nation and we must take care of our own wellbeing as well as looking out for others.
Rebecca Weinberg explores the effects that isolation could be having on neurodivergent people and those living with mental health problems.
Isolation is tough.
Although baking endless sourdough loaves and living vicariously through a video game character are decent pastimes, nothing can completely replace regular social interaction. After all, we’re social creatures, and it’s difficult to ignore our basic need for human contact. The forced isolation from lockdown can be testing, even for the most introverted of people.
This is especially the case for neurodivergent people and those living with mental health problems. Without the distractions and interactions that normal daily life allows, it can be harder to ignore the unhealthy thoughts and behaviours creeping at the edge of your mind.
Dr. Amy Chandler is a sociologist who specialises in understanding mental health and substance use. She takes some time away from working at home to speak about how the current lockdown could affect people with mental health problems.
“This is an important issue, and one that I fear will have long term repercussions for many,” says Dr. Chandler. “Isolation and loneliness have both been linked with poorer mental health, and suicidal thoughts.”
“Coping with isolation and keeping occupied is inevitably easier for those with greater resources – financial, emotional, social – than those without these. People with mental health problems may face particular challenges maintaining social contact; feeling able to phone or contact people for help or just a chat can be extremely difficult if you are feeling worthless.”
When speaking with neurodivergent people and people living with mental health problems about their struggles with lockdown, it’s easy to see these issues in action.
“When the reality of my situation finally hit, I began to shut myself off,” says Eilidh Swinton, an MSc Publishing student whose degree was thrown into uncertainty. Eilidh’s depression and anxiety, usually manageable in normal life, has been resurfacing again.
“I used to commute a lot for university, my work experience and for meeting friends. The travel, and all that I mentioned, seriously helped me overcome the worst of my anxiety and depression. Even going out for a drink, food and a catch-up with my friends always helped my mind feel a little lighter.”
The lack of structure is causing her to retreat within herself: “It’s been hard to message even my closest of friends. I could message first, saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ and then shut my phone off and stare at a wall.”
Megan Peoples, a library worker who lives with autism, is experiencing similar issues. “The days seem to be getting longer and longer. As an autistic person who is prone to panic, I feel like I am getting more paranoid the longer I’m confined. Some days I find myself crying for no reason, other days I feel nothing at all.”
Even if you are able to communicate with friends, you might be missing the support of a professional service, such as counselling or a recovery group.
“Many people use community mental health services, and for some this will have been a key (or only) place for social support and social interaction,” says Dr. Chandler. “With the lockdown, many of these services have been closed. Similar problems will be faced by people with addictions, who have been attending support and recovery groups. My understanding is that in many areas all but ‘essential’ services are being shut, meaning that vital recovery and social support opportunities are suddenly lost.”
With the need to focus more staff on the pandemic, many NHS-funded mental health services have been pared down or temporarily halted. This leaves people either relying on hotlines, accessing therapy remotely, or simply withdrawing and not getting the support they need.
In the US, President Trump casually remarked that the social and economic effects of COVID-19 would lead to “suicides by the thousand”. While the blasé remark was seen by many as callous, it’s true that support programs throughout the world are receiving an increase in calls for help.
Speaking about the increased call rate, the manager of support programs at a New York helpline told Buzzfeed News: “We hear a lot of people saying, ‘I feel very alone, I’m very anxious and scared’. We’re getting a lot more calls about suicide and suicidal thinking.”
Studies on the effects of social isolation have shown that loneliness is detrimental to our physical, mental, and cognitive health. In a 2015 review on the effects of isolation, it’s shown that loneliness in adults is linked with depression, suicidal ideation, and cognitive decline in later life.
So, knowing all of this, how can you ease the negative effects of social isolation?
Firstly, although it can be incredibly difficult to reach out when you’re feeling low, speaking to others is one of the best ways to combat loneliness and negative feelings.
“Reach out for help wherever possible,” Dr. Chandler advises. “That said, I think there needs to be recognition that for some people this will be extremely difficult. As such, I think it is vitally important that people who know someone who struggles with their mental health also reach out and check in on people gently, and without being patronising or intrusive. Setting up low-stakes social events online like quizzes or games nights can be helpful.”
Trying new hobbies and staying occupied can also distract from negative feelings. This isn’t to say that you should convert to a “rise and grind” lifestyle during quarantine, but even low-effort pastimes like gaming or reading can take your mind elsewhere. This could still be difficult to achieve if you’re feeling awful though, and Dr. Chandler acknowledges this: “I fear that many of the suggestions for those struggling with mental health at this time may be off the mark, and also place a lot of responsibility on the individual who is struggling, rather than those around them, or the government, or local services.”
If it’s getting difficult to bear, you can reach out for professional help. Although many services are closed, there are still a vast number of helplines and resources out there. A list of mental health helplines can be found on the NHS site here. Resources recommended by an NHS counsellor include those on the Centre for Clinical Interventions Australia site, and mindfulness apps such as Calm and Headspace. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“One final suggestion, would be to accept that there is a crisis and to expect to feel terrible sometimes, and not to feel additionally bad for feeling bad,” Dr. Chandler adds.
“This is one of the reasons I’m cautious about suggesting things that might help, as it may propagate an idea that if one just tries hard enough or does the right thing then mental ill-health can be avoided or minimised. While I do think there are things that can be tried, I’d also not want to add to shaming and blaming, which may well be internalised.”
It’s important to remember that these times are unprecedented, full of anxiety and uncertainty. There’s no correct way to live during a pandemic, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed if you’re not coping well.
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