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9 April 2020

As we fight coronavirus, we must plan for its impact on our mental health

The current crisis will leave a mark on the nation's psychological well-being for years to come.

By Luciana Berger

It is absolutely right that the nation’s focus right now is on saving lives. Everyone can play their part, from the NHS staff (even those who thought they’d retired), to the key workers in care homes, emergency services and the armed forces, to those keeping the supermarkets stocked, to the three-quarters of a million of us who have signed up to help the isolated.

The prominent government advice focuses on mitigating the risk of Covid-19, but does little to advise on our mental well-being. We must recognise, and prepare for, the toll this crisis is taking on the nation’s mental health. There are the frontline workers, the paramedics and staff on the emergency wards, who are at risk of burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder. I welcome the “wobble rooms” and “rest and recharge hubs” that hospitals have established for staff in need of respite, and the NHS staff support helpline and text service which has just been launched, but we will have to contend with the long-term consequences of this for decades.

There are specific groups particularly at risk, such as new mums, who are having their babies in sub-optimal circumstances, separated from their partners until the latter stages of birth and denied practical support from their families and friends in the early weeks of their child’s life. There are millions with pre-existing mental health conditions, who will already be isolated. This group is being deprived of the face-to-face contact offered by support groups, talking therapies and sessions with mental health professionals, which could hamper too many people’s recovery. Alas, there are thousands who are suffering the pain of bereavement, shorn of all the comforting religious and cultural rituals of funeral, commemoration and collective farewell. Millions are suffering a loss of income, watching their businesses falter or fail, and are viewing the future with trepidation and anxiety.

And of course, there is the vast majority of the population under virtual house arrest, 23 hours a day.

A recent review on the impact of quarantine across the world by King’s College London showed that common psychological resposes include post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger. Those of us who live in flats, or in cramped conditions, are feeling the pressure of the four walls. Those of us with young children are struggling to assume the role of nursery nurse and/or teacher, and in my case reinforcing a life-long admiration for the resilience and patience of those who do it full time.

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Children themselves are isolated from their friends, cut off from their routines, barred from games, sports and playgrounds, and are possibly spending their days in stressful settings. They may be hearing from the news and adult conversations, perhaps for the first time, about illness and death. This crisis weighs heavily on these young, impressionable minds.

The impact of this unprecedented time can be more than just feeling sad, lonely or frustrated. We know that being cooped up is injurious to mental health. It places pressure on relationships within the family. We know incidents of mental and physical abuse are soaring, with calls to the Refuge helpline up by 25 per cent in the past week. I commend people in the public eye, such as Victoria Derbyshire, for promoting the Refuge helpline and website.

We must keep access to parks and other public spaces open to all for both our physical and mental health. For people with young children, this is a lifeline. It is entirely possible to keep social distancing in place in a public park, and if people flout the rules, they can be advised strongly not to. The minority must not be allowed to ruin the well-being of the majority. I would like to see private spaces, such as the closed gardens in city squares, the grounds of stately homes and golf courses, opened too.

When the physical threat of coronavirus subsides, as it surely will, we must address the impact to our mental health. If we can marshal our nation’s resources to create new hospitals from thin air, recruit an army of volunteers nearly a million strong, nationalise the railways and prop up businesses, I am sure we can make the same effort to tackle the mental health crisis. Just as the economic impact will be felt for years to come, so too will the impact on our mental health, and we need to start planning to deal with it now.

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