While for some it has been a period of opportunity and revelation, for many people the challenges of mind and spirit posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have been exceptional. The nature of the challenges is not new to the world: unemployment, money worries, loneliness, bereavement, stress, family tensions, let alone getting ill, and many other things. These issues are affecting more people than ever during the pandemic, and perhaps they are exacerbated by the fact they were unexpected, not in the plan for 2020 or 2021, and the end of the negatives is fraught with uncertainty and there is a feeling of powerlessness to overcome them. Relationships are perhaps the staff of life, and so enforced separation and isolation, or at the other extreme enforced 24/7 closeness, are the most foreign to people and so hardest to cope with. Mental and emotional batteries are showing red.
The media have majored on distress through the pandemic, including emotional pressure and anxiety, in particular the misery of illness in an ICU, losing a “loved one”, the damage to children, young adults and the elderly. All adverse issues are labelled with a mental health element or problem. At least awareness of the importance of mental well-being has been heightened, and it has become acceptable to acknowledge and discuss mental health issues. The Heads Together initiative started by Princes William and Harry has helped reduce the stigma attached to mental health.
However, there is perhaps a question mark over what should be put in the mental health box: it surely cannot be all concerns that people have which are in the mind or emotional. For young people for example, the categorisation of normal anxieties, fears and strange reactions as mental health issues runs the risk of their developing a neurosis about their psyche, where in fact they are being called on to deal with the normal demands of growing up. That in turn would damage their preparation for adulthood.
ANXIETY, STRESS AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Are not anxiety, stress and disappointment a common, and even necessary, fact and experience of normal daily life? How people react to and handle them determines whether they weaken or strengthen. Discomfort is a regular feeling to be coped with and turned around. To be anxious is not normally a mental health issue. The recording on television of a man saying “I am anxious” with the flavour of requiring psychological treatment may be unhelpful. Are there not levels of sadness, grief, feeling down, feeling unappreciated, feeling disappointed and of setbacks which have to be managed and kept in perspective? And perhaps that is a level which is a tougher bar than may prevail in a society which sees risk as bad rather than a development factor and which turns to outside expert help at the first sign of nervousness.
Of course, a stiff upper lip is not the answer to a lot of problems, but learning to cope with a reasonable level of these challenges is necessary if a person is to survive happily; most often a sympathetic listener, empathetic ears of friends or family, encouragement and optimism, focussing on solutions and positive activities removes the seeming hopelessness. Public health services should be more a last not a first resort, and there will only ever be enough for the more extreme cases at best. Jenny Kelly in the Financial Times in February said, “We need to stop pathologizing uncomfortable feelings”. Putting all bad feelings and discomfort in a mental health bucket arguably downgrades the serious issues, such as true depression and suicidal tendency. The mental health label perhaps should be used more sparingly.
SAVING THE YOUNG
On 19 January 2021, The Prince’s Trust, which is dedicated to helping the young in difficult circumstances, published their Tesco Youth Index report, based on a survey of some 2,000 16–25-year-olds, about their well-being in the pandemic. Some highlight findings are: 26% have had feelings of “being unable to cope” rising to 40% among those not in employment, education or training (NEETS); 50% say their mental health is worse; 25% say they have had suicidal thoughts (NEETS 28%);20% have had panic attacks (NEETS 28%).
But 74% say “my generation can change the future for the better”. The report talks of the devastating effect of the pandemic on youth well-being and mental health. There are clearly widespread feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, and well over a third think their opinions do not matter. The survey cannot be ignored. Nor can the opinions of educational, child and family experts, as well as those of parents and teachers, that a high, perhaps too high a price is being paid by the young in the pandemic, especially among the most disadvantaged. In considering ending lockdown restrictions, it is hoped UKGOV will be true to its stated intention to put children’s education front and centre.
Among schoolchildren, absence from school has made the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and the rest even wider. It is no good simply wringing hands and sympathising with regret, treating them as victims and casting blame at whatever authority is in the way. There is no equality and fairness between the circumstances that confront different generations and worrying about comparisons as happens today may be misdirected energy.
Rather, perhaps the narrative needs to be turned on its head, with the emphasis no longer on branding this generation as lost or as a generation of youngsters being scarred for life due to a single disrupted school year, but on creating a commitment to their catching-up and how that can be done; focussing on their potential not what they have missed, to keep their self-esteem high; and so, create the confidence and determination in them not to be left behind. They need to see themselves not as victims but as fighters to overcome a setback together, with parents, teachers, and the community there as supporters. Similarly, with University students. Since it is not events that do most damage but reactions to them, getting a mentally positive reaction from the young is fundamental. Answers may lay in change and innovation: for example, changing the structure of school terms and schooldays; moving exams to a different time to allow catch up. At Universities maybe courses can be finished in 2 instead of 3 years, with shorter holiday breaks. Academics may have to be flexible in students’ longer-term interests. Innovation and change in the ways of doing things can surely limit the damage.
TURNING THINGS AROUND – WINNING NOT WALLOWING
Recharging the mental and emotional batteries is a priority. Leaving it to mental health professionals will not solve the problem alone. Every effort needs to be made for every individual, particularly the young, to be given the chance to shake off the adverse impact of the pandemic, starting now. If their mindset is right, surely they can achieve it? Leaving aside UKGOV, their local community will be the mainstay back-up. Is it not possible that the survival instinct in all people could be made to kick in to provide the necessary resolve? Is it not likely that the young have the resourcefulness in them, the drawing out of which is the responsibility of the adults who influence them? If a person sees themselves as valuable and understands their potential, can they not help themselves to catch up, with support? Perhaps the young need to be asked what they need to do and otherwise what needs to happen to make things good. It is a truism that it is by overcoming, not succumbing to, disappointment, failures and setbacks, that people develop quicker and succeed the more. Maybe this generation, instead of becoming less able to cope because they have been well coddled, will in fact be the more resilient and ambitious, becoming less expectant of a rescue from outside agencies? Society perhaps has a much-needed opportunity to stop portraying and pitying people as victims, to engender a culture of facing and defeating adversity, taking more risk, and winning not wallowing.