In my local area, many people have kept up their Christmas decorations and lights longer than usual, perhaps hoping to fend off the current gloom. I have certainly appreciated it. The January blues is a well-established annual media phenomenon, which as far as I know has little scientific evidence behind it. But for many of us, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, it instinctively makes sense. After the season of festivities, socialising, eating, and possibly drinking to excess, there is an inevitable comedown with the return to reality. Many feel a financial pinch, and long, dark nights - often accompanied by dismal weather - don’t do much to lift the spirits. Regardless of a lack of evidence base, in recent years January blues stories have provided a useful opportunity to highlight the importance of mental health and to signpost help and advice.
Regardless of a lack of evidence base, in recent years January blues stories have provided a useful opportunity to highlight the importance of mental health and to signpost help and advice
For 2021, this concern about mental health and wellbeing is fundamentally more important. The demands and worries associated with the COVID pandemic are leaving many more people feeling mentally exhausted. There are also clear indications of increased demand for specialist mental health services, and growing concern about long-term impacts on certain groups, notably young people. Before I turn to them, though, I want to consider the impact on those dealing with the very sick and dying on a daily basis.
My mother was an Accident and Emergency nurse in one of London’s busiest hospitals, and I know people who work within Intensive Care Units. These jobs bring you into close and regular contact with the realities of death and the stress of having to inform and support next of kin at a time of unthinkable trauma. Staff develop a degree of competence and have coping mechanisms to deal with what, for many of us, would be unbearable. Despite what some may think, those working in these environments do get upset, but supported by colleagues, they can normally deal with it. In recent years, more professional support for employees has been developed, but it is still far from embedded. In most cases, it remains a cup of tea - the universal cure-all for many in the UK - and a chat with friends, after which hopefully people are good to go again. But time off and a chance to rest are also incredibly important.
The pandemic obviously massively increases these pressures on medical professionals. Added to the concern about your patient is the knowledge that you are at risk of catching the virus, or of passing it on to your family and loved ones. Nurses and Doctors are having to wear Personal Protective Equipment to help stay safe, but this also makes the work more physically draining, at a time when the workload has also massively increased. News channels have shown staff who are utterly exhausted, but who know that, to help others, they can’t take a break or even have a decent rest with the aforementioned cup of tea. It will be weeks, if not months, before the situation they are dealing with improves. There are real concerns that if we don’t address this damage being done to this most valuable of workforces, it will have dire consequences for both individuals and health care for years to come.
There have been some efforts to try and help staff: the Royal College of Nursing has produced a resources page which includes advice on self-care as well as a number of useful links, including to Frontline 19, which provides free professional psychological support to those working in frontline services. From what I understand, it’s doing a great job, helping some 1800 individuals a week, but I am not sure such an important service should be dependent on donations!
The small sliver of silver lining I can see from all this is that it reinforces the understanding that mental health issues are relevant to everyone - that it is not just an issue for those who are somehow frail or who need to get a grip. Perhaps the current pandemic will be the catalyst that finally moves the understanding and resourcing of mental health to its rightful position, no longer the poor relation to “proper” medical conditions. There is certainly evidence aplenty that the current situation will see a significant increase in need.
Perhaps the current pandemic will be the catalyst that finally moves the understanding and resourcing of mental health to its rightful position, no longer the poor relation to “proper” medical conditions. There is certainly evidence aplenty that the current situation will see a significant increase in need
The Prince’s Trust has just produced results from its annual research showing that levels of anxiety amongst 16 to 25 years old are at their highest point in 12 years. This is no great surprise, but a situation where a quarter of young people feel they have “been unable to cope with life”, and half feel their mental health has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic, should stimulate a significant response. The disruption to young lives has been massive, as opportunities to socialise, develop, study or get into the world of work have all been thrown into chaos. There are no easy answers or responses, but the focus on support during the pandemic has often been on the elderly, or younger children. We ignore this cohort at their, and our, peril. After all I, and many of you, are probably dependent on this group to get decent jobs, and pay taxes, in order to keep us comfortable in our older years while we reminisce about the Pandemic of 2020/21.
On a serious note, I have seen great improvements in how mental health is understood, discussed and delivered over the last twenty years. There are fewer services delivered in Portakabins, it is less of a taboo subject, and there is a growing understanding that anyone can experience poor mental health. But there is more to do in terms of parity with general health services, and much more to be done in terms of improving access and integration. And, as I have said before, we can all play a part by being more understanding and a little kinder to colleagues, family and friends. Remember, where circumstances permit, a cup of tea and a chat, even virtually, can do wonders.