Recently I returned to work for a few hours a week, with the Greater Manchester Bereavement Support Service, which has been set up in the wake of the impact of coronavirus on the city I have loved and worked in for most of my life. However, I haven’t left Orkney. Like many others at the moment, I am working remotely and trying to cope with the sadness of lockdown, which bears much resemblance, for most of us, to grief. We miss our usual lives and contact with our friends, and the holidays we planned to take this year. But if we have a job we can do from home, and can afford the higher food prices, we might appreciate the relief from the daily commute. (Those home schooling as well as WFH may disagree here).
However, for others much less privileged than I am, Covid-19 is bringing its own much more severe stresses, loss of jobs, freedom, health and hopes for the future. Despite what was announced recently, mental health services have still been operating, but many service users and patients say on social media they haven’t been receiving the contact they previously had. Our Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service in Salford, of which I am still a non-executive director, is operating completely virtually but some people don’t want to talk about difficult emotions to a person they cannot meet face-to-face. My former colleagues in psychiatric services are still out in the community, trying to help the most in need through assertive outreach but there are others who are not being reached. Covid-19 is not an equal opportunities disease. Some communities such as ethnic minorities (not least doctors and nurses) are being hit very hard, and the poor will always suffer the most in any crisis.
Some say they are coping better with their mental health during lockdown, but many are not. A recent article in the Guardian about a ‘tsunami’ of people presenting with new mental health problems has triggered the predictable debate about medicalisation of mental distress, and there has been discussion about how it’s quite normal to be afraid of coronavirus. Yes, it is. However, instead of getting hung up in the usual argument about what’s ‘normal’, can we at least acknowledge that people are suffering, some of them quite extreme and terrifying degrees of distress, and that they are asking for help?
When we have a loss in our lives, grief is a perfectly ‘normal’ human response, but what happens after that isn’t the same for everyone. Distress that is triggered by negative life events can spiral into something much more severe for people who are already vulnerable – because of early life experiences, lack of support, physical illness, the cumulative impact of previous losses and everything else that goes with poverty. If you have lost someone who is the centre of your universe during lockdown and you could not see them to say ‘goodbye’, to hold their hand for the last time, and even have a hug from your friends and family, you will likely be feeling bereft. You may even have thoughts that life isn’t worth going on with alone. Some people are experiencing these feelings just now and are beginning to ask for help as they are not ‘getting over it’ at the speed others that around them tell them is ‘normal’. They just want someone to listen to how it is for them.
I’ve been struggling at times as I’m alone in Scotland, and desperately in need of a hug from my husband who is in England. We are fortunate enough to be in the process of moving here, but he cannot be with me at present as he was in Yorkshire when the travel ban was announced. There are times when my mood slips, and the solitude I’ve come to enjoy slips back into a familiar loneliness from the past I thought I had overcome. Sleep is difficult, but the other advantages in my current life (especially the view from my desk window) are providing me with a cushion against relapsing back into depression. When some of us think of how we are coping, let’s acknowledge that life isn’t experienced in the same way by everyone. In the midst of this pandemic, what some people are asking us for help with might not be ‘normal’ distress, and whatever it is, it hurts.