Lockdown is difficult. As students, our lives have been suddenly upended. No more lectures and seminars, no more exams, no more all-nighters in the library, no more part-time job on campus, no more nights out with friends. Our routine has evaporated overnight. This sudden change isn’t easy. When we’re used to the sense of closeness that we get from the university bubble, the isolation we’re now experiencing can be devastating. Our support network has become harder to access, and we’re worried about our health, our relatives, and the financial impact on our families.
It’s no surprise that the impact of coronavirus on mental health is a cause for concern. The Royal College of Psychiatrists cites a rise in first-time mental health issues, particularly among young men, and early data suggests that anxiety, depression, and associated conditions are on the rise. Commentators are clear: we must end the lockdown as soon as possible to reduce the potentially devastating impact on mental health.
The same people now lambasting the effects of lockdown are those who have never shown an interest in mental health before
Call me cynical, but I find something about this new sudden focus on mental health rather unnerving. The same people now lambasting the effects of lockdown are those who have never shown an interest in mental health before. Mental health minister Nadine Dorries has promised additional support to help combat the mental health impact of coronavirus, yet has displayed a blatant disregard for the reality of her brief, using ableist terminology on her Twitter account, and consistently voting against LBGT rights and any increase to welfare payments. Boris Johnson professes to care about the mental health impacts of lockdown, yet previously wrote an article explaining that the solution to depression is simply to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get to work.
These are the most obvious example of the hypocrisy surrounding the mental health debate, but I think that they also highlight a more subtle problem. We only care about wellbeing when it’s convenient. If it fits with our narrative then we are all too keen to virtue-signal, to profess our empathy towards those who live with mental health issues, to advocate for them. But if supporting mental health means accepting some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the society we live in, then all too often we remain silent.
But if supporting mental health means accepting some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the society we live in, then all too often we remain silent
Returning to ‘normal’ is not the solution to mental health issues. As campaigner and author Matt Haig has highlighted, our former world – the world these self-appointed ‘mental health champions’ want us to return to – was damaging too. We’re expected to dedicate ourselves full-time to our studies, to hold down our job and stay way beyond our contracted hours, to be a perfect child, brother, sister, partner, to exercise daily, to hang out with our friends as much as possible, to have an interesting hobby, to reply to emails at all hours and to always, always be available.
We watch adverts that make us feel bad about ourselves and buy things that we don’t need, to try to be someone who we’re not. We watch our families suffer from the ongoing impact of austerity. We sit on waiting lists for appointments that never come, for problems that are never solved. And if we ever complain, we feel guilty, because we’re told we’re lucky, really, to have such a busy, fulfilling life. This world isn’t good for us either. But we don’t talk about it, because it’s not convenient.
Mental health isn’t a trendy ‘hot topic’ and, unlike coronavirus, there is no possibility of a vaccine
For me, the lockdown has been a welcome break from this hectic, panic-filled, pressurised world. Finally, it’s okay to stop. I don’t constantly have to force myself to go to engagement after engagement, even when I’m exhausted.
I recognise that I’m lucky to experience the pandemic in this way. For many people, work continues as normal, except with the added danger of Covid-19, and overtime as colleagues fall ill. Or those who have fallen through the cracks, who are struggling to make ends meet. It’s important to tackle the undeniable impacts of the current crisis on mental health. But we also need to think about the future. Mental health isn’t a trendy ‘hot topic’ and, unlike coronavirus, there is no possibility of a vaccine. There are lessons to be learned from the lifestyle changes forced upon us. Let lockdown be our classroom.