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How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected our mental health?

Covid-19 has certainly taken its toll on our mental wellbeing...

The combination of social isolation, health fears and financial concerns are causing new mental health problems for many of us while making existing ones worse. Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures from November 2020 show that almost one in five adults were experiencing some form of depression – double the pre-pandemic figure – and 17% were suffering from anxiety. And more recent ONS surveys have found that personal wellbeing and happiness levels are the lowest they’ve been since surveys began last March.

What’s more, Covid-19 could leave us with an epidemic of mental ill-health that will last much longer than the virus itself. It’s predicted that up to 10 million people will need new or additional support with mental health as a direct result.

5 big mental health concerns – and how to tackle them during Covid-19

Here, we look at the main mental health problems caused or worsened by the pandemic and suggest some self-help measures and sources of advice.

Depression during COVID-19

Common symptoms of depression include persistent low mood or sadness, and loss of interest in things you normally enjoy. Depression may also cause physical symptoms, such as problems with sleep, and loss of appetite. If you think you might be depressed, try the NHS mood assessment quiz.

If you’ve been feeling constantly depressed for more than a couple of weeks and it’s interfering with your day-to-day life, then contact your GP or local mental health service for advice, as you may need counselling or medication. You can find more information on depression on the Mind website.

Anxiety and anxiety-related disorders during Covid-19

Fears about catching the coronavirus, money worries, and the stress of juggling home schooling with work are just a few of the issues causing higher levels of anxiety during the pandemic. Anxiety can take different forms and may go hand in hand with depression. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can make you feel anxious all or most of the time about lots of different things. Other types of anxiety can focus on a specific issue, or take the form of panic attacks – sudden bouts of extreme fear.

Anxiety-related disorders such as health anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have been worsened by the pandemic. Some people with OCD are fixated on germs and hygiene. They may feel compelled to wash their hands and sanitise their surroundings to an extreme degree. The measures needed to combat Covid-19 could exacerbate this.

Common symptoms of anxiety include constant worrying that’s hard to control, feelings of fear, and difficulty in concentrating. Anxiety can also produce physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, or feeling dizzy, shaky or sick.

Self-help measures for anxiety will often depend on the type of anxiety you’re experiencing. You can find lots of helpful information about self-care for anxiety on the Mind website. Other useful sources are charities such as Anxiety UK, OCD-UK, and No Panic.

Addictive behaviour during Covid-19

Many are drinking more alcohol to help ease the stresses of the pandemic. Public Health England figures show that 8.4 million people have been drinking at problem levels during lockdown – almost twice as many as before. Other problems include the misuse of prescription and over-the-counter pain-relieving drugs containing opioids, which can be addictive, as well as the use of illegal drugs and online gambling. All these things can worsen mental health problems in the longer term.

If you are regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week (a 750ml bottle of wine contains around 10 units; a pint of beer or lager is around 3 units), you should cut down. Make sure you have several alcohol-free days a week. Cutting out alcohol altogether for a period may also be a good idea. You can read more about the benefits in our article on going sober for a month.

There’s lots more information about different types of addiction and where to find help on the NHS website.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during Covid-19

Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people who have been through extremely frightening, traumatic or stressful events. Symptoms can include flashbacks, difficulty sleeping and nightmares, and other problems such as anxiety, depression, guilt and anger.

PTSD due to the Covid-19 pandemic has affected two main groups:

  • Frontline healthcare workers have been impacted by seeing so many deaths, as well as fearing for their own health and that of their families. Stressful working conditions, long shifts and lack of sleep have also made it harder for many to process their experiences. A study from King’s College London has found that almost half of intensive care unit staff have been affected by PTSD, severe anxiety or problem drinking during the pandemic.

  • Patients hospitalised with Covid can be traumatised by invasive treatments such as breathing tubes, the experience of fighting for breath, and isolation from loved ones. Research has found that around a fifth of Covid patients who were on ventilators during the first wave have developed PTSD.

Help for PTSD is available from your GP, as new training for doctors in spotting and treating the condition is now being rolled out. NHS England says that everyone hospitalised with Covid-19 will be invited to a follow-up appointment with their GP or hospital team to assess its effect on their mental health. Frontline-19 provides a free and confidential listening service staffed by qualified practitioners for frontline workers in the NHS and other emergency and care workers.

Dealing with grief during Covid-19

Losing a loved one has been particularly hard during the pandemic. Restrictions on hospital and care home visits as well as on funerals have prevented many people saying goodbye in the usual way. Grief is natural, but for some people it can trigger other problems such as depression or anxiety.

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between grief and depression as they have some of the same symptoms, such as intense sadness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. However, the sadness of grief is usually punctuated with happier feelings and memories, especially as time goes on, while depression is more persistent and may make it difficult to cope with day-to-day life. We explore this topic in more detail in our article How to cope with grief.

If you are grieving, it often helps to talk through your feelings. Charities such as Cruise Bereavement Care and the National Bereavement Partnership have helplines and other resources. 

Physical problems and their impact on mental health

Pressure on the health service has meant delays to some treatments and non-urgent surgery, such as hip and knee replacements, leaving many people living with pain and uncertainty. Longer waits for diagnostic tests also cause more anxiety. Fortunately, most services for Benenden Health members have not been badly affected and we’ve continued to provide treatment and diagnosis through our partners.

If delays to your treatment are affecting your mental health, talk to your doctor or consultant rather than suffer in silence. They’ll be able to reassure you and may offer you medication or suggest self-help measures to make the wait easier.

Long Covid, or persistent symptoms following Covid-19 infection, can also be a source of mental health problems, with some people experiencing depression, anxiety, and frustration at not being able to get back to normal.

Ways to look after your mental health

It’s really important to take care of your mental wellbeing and there are lots of simple steps you can take to stay positive and build resilience. Key advice is:

  • Stay connected with others and talk about how you feel rather than bottle things up.

  • Get regular exercise. Physical activity can play an important role in regulating our mood and making us feel better about ourselves.

  • Look after your physical health by eating well and getting enough sleep. Feeling tired and run down will affect your mental health too.

You may also find our article on ways to improve your mental wellbeing helpful.

Where to find mental health support during the pandemic

Benenden Health members can utilise their membership and call our Mental Health Helpline to speak with a counsellor. The service is available 24/7 and is accessible from day one of your membership.

With the NHS under extreme pressure, there are long waiting lists for treatment in some areas. But the good news is that many therapies are now being delivered by phone or online. In England, you can bypass the GP and refer yourself for NHS talking therapies. To find out what’s available in other parts of the UK, visit Living Life (Scotland), Wales mental health support, or Northern Ireland mental health services. However, if you’re feeling very distressed, you should still contact your GP or your local NHS urgent mental health helpline