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19 January 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:13am

It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health

Britons are reportedly struggling more than at any other point in the pandemic. Why now? And what can be done to ease the mental health crisis?

By Sarah Manavis

For the majority of 2020, when asked how I was, I answered in all sincerity: basically fine. Like many others, I would break down if I thought too long about what was happening, or counted the days since I had last seen my family, but my daily life had in many ways improved. I was exercising regularly; I didn’t have to commute. 

In the grand scheme of things, I have been and continue to be lucky. I have a steady income, a dog and a boyfriend with whom I have welcomed spending more time. I spent the first lockdown with his parents in rural Scotland, where I had as much physical space as I could hope for, and almost no one I know has become seriously ill or died. Which is why, around a month ago when I started feeling my mood begin to slip, I couldn’t understand what was triggering my otherwise consistent mental health to suffer. 

At first I tried to brush it off as a bad week. But as I started admitting to myself – as well as my friends and family – that this wasn’t going away, I realised almost everyone I knew was experiencing the same thing. One of my friends said they were having recurring nightmares, while another said he hasn’t been able to lift his mood since Christmas. One of my more cynical friends has started writing a “gratitude journal”; another spent £100 on a punching bag. 

Finally, in the middle of a third lockdown in January, after nearly ten months of restrictions and with virus case numbers higher than ever, pandemic fatigue is starting to spike – witnessed not in reduced compliance with restrictions, but in reduced mental stamina. In a study released last week by Ipsos Mori, six in ten Britons admitted finding it harder to stay positive during this lockdown – both day to day as well as in the long term. Among women, that number is closer to seven in ten. Only 7 per cent of the population are finding it easier to be optimistic about the future. ONS data shows the number of people suffering depression has doubled. The NHS has reported huge increases in emergency referrals for crisis mental healthcare.

[See also: The other epidemic: how coronavirus triggered a surge in mental illness]

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Why now? Why, when we know there is a vaccine and can see its roll-out is under way, are we struggling more with mental health at this point than throughout the entire pandemic? 

When looking at the neurological causes of mass despair, we have to consider the spectrum of what psychologists call “reward-seeking behaviour”. At one end is addiction, where the motivation to “receive rewards” is in overdrive. At the other is a mental state in which rewards are not sought out because, chemically, the brain doesn’t believe there to be any to find. The incentive to seek out pleasure is suppressed, leaving only monotony and sadness. 

Collectively, we are now likely at the low motivation end of the spectrum. During previous lockdowns, there were near-term rewards: fewer restrictions, a return to greater normality, in-person time with other people. The carrot was dangled as a motivational tool to encourage compliance, and some rewards were reaped in periods of relative freedom. But what we are now experiencing is not just the worst physical environment of this pandemic (wintry weather, short days, and new mutant strains with higher levels of transmissibility), but also one in which a reward seems more elusive than ever. It’s hard to seek out pleasure when we continue to be limited to our homes, and exercise in near-freezing weather. 

We keep hearing promises of a normal spring, or definitely summer, but they come with warnings of a return to restrictions next winter. We are also seeing leaks to journalists that the current lockdown may last even through to May, along with reports from scientists that new variants may limit the effectiveness of the existing vaccines. All of that has led to waning confidence in the government’s competency – in handling the virus and even the ability to roll out vaccinations on schedule. It doesn’t inspire hope, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, mixed with our growing understanding that this can’t just be stamped out in one bad year, makes it hard to draw out much joy.

[See also: How Zoom calls revived my social anxiety]

This kind of mounting despair can be difficult to endure. Rosie Weatherley, of the charity Mind, tells me that the national mental health picture looks grim. “It’s no understatement to say that the nation is facing a ‘mental health pandemic’,” she says. “It’s clear that our mental health is deteriorating across the board – from mild mental health problems right through to those reaching crisis point and even having to be hospitalised.”

Weatherley points out that in the first two lockdowns there was a sense of motivation – the unifying “Blitz spirit” in the first and a Christmas unlocking to look forward to in the second. “This time, we don’t know when the lockdown will end,” she says. And seasonally, this has come at the worst time of year. “The weather is still cold, and January can be a difficult month financially.”

The collective grief we are experiencing as a nation will also take years to work through, lifetimes for some. Weatherley says the government needs to develop a strategy for dealing with the fallout. “A cross-government approach to protecting and improving the mental health of the nation in the coming months and years has never been more vital as we enter another economic recession, resulting in many more people potentially needing support from the benefits system.” 

I’ve started to be honest about how I’m feeling, and am trying to get what I can out of the few things that do stabilise my mood (following advice from Mind). But it will take more than simply being gentler with ourselves to help ease the looming mental health crisis: we need government action, clarity and intervention to mitigate the effects of the crisis that is already here. 

[See also: Get the latest data on Covid-19 where you live with our tracker]

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost