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The Mind in Lockdown

Benjavisa Ruangvaree

Let’s face it, there’s been a spark in discussions and articles about how the UK government is responding poorly to Covid-19. And whilst this piece may fall under that category, I hope that it’ll do more than that – perhaps offer a slightly different perspective and a look at the longer-term impacts of lockdown.

Catastrophically, to date over 180,000 people globally have reportedly died as a result of this pandemic – a figure that will continue to rise. Fit, healthy, underlying conditions, young, old – this virus doesn’t discriminate. How’s about that for a bit of 21st century irony where discrimination is usually so commonplace? Whilst I do not want to undermine the tragedy of these deaths, I do want to take a look at the bigger picture. Enter our elusive old friend who so often has been forced to take a backseat in favour of the more gregarious: everyone’s least favourite dinner party guest, mental health.

Whilst devastating, focusing on the number of deaths and physical illnesses in the midst of this virus is too simplistic. It is focusing on the here, the now, and as a society already famed for its short-termist attitude, this isn’t enough. The impacts that this virus is having, and will continue to have, on people’s mental health is often difficult to identify, unquantifiable, and will inevitably have long-lasting and far-reaching impacts. Unfamiliar territory for our UK government, who have for so long underfunded mental health and focused on the physical, treating a symptom and failing to really see the mind and body as one.

As we descend into the certainty of at least another two weeks of lockdown, so much is still unknown. Another two weeks confined to the four walls of your home, with your family, housemates, or if you live alone, then another two weeks of your own bittersweet company. For those of us already accustomed to the overbearing arms of depression, anxiety, among others, we greet this familiar face with a sense of dread. For those of us lucky enough to have so far escaped its clutches, now might be the time to get acquainted.

I’ve seen many social media posts, articles, videos detailing coping methods and ‘ways to survive lockdown’. It’s not all doom and gloom. This pandemic has allowed us to slow down, in a world where we’re constantly going at a million miles an hour, to take time, breath, and be present. When confined to your home, that first step outside for your daily walk, run, cycle truly is a breath of fresh air. You can feel your consciousness expanding as you take in every sight, sound, smell, appreciating all that the natural outside world has to offer. We have been granted an opportunity to get creative, learn something new, work on a project we’ve always insisted that we’ve never had the time for, online yoga classes, live streamed gigs, weekly Zoom pub quizzes despite never before attending a quiz in a real-life pub… the list goes on. And even if you’ve done none of these things, that’s OK. If you’ve showered today, made yourself a bite to eat, then that’s an achievement in itself. What we do have is the solidarity that we are all in this together.

Potentially hard to imagine at this stage, but what happens when it’s all over? I say all over in reference to lockdown, as realistically it’s going to be a very long time before everything goes completely back to ‘normal’, if it ever does. Once we can be certain the virus has peaked, we start to see a downward trajectory, our NHS feels in a better position to cope and lockdown measures begin to ease off, what happens next? Likely, there will be a sharp rise in people reaching out for mental health support. And these problems will take longer to identify, work through and solve, costing our society not only in money, but more importantly, our overall wellbeing and happiness. Why is this being ignored? It’s unsatisfactory to say that mental health is fixable, whereas death is final. Yes, while mental health might be curable, or manageable at least, is the prolonged psychological (and as a result, likely physical) suffering of many not equitable to the deaths of a few?

This is not a ‘later’ problem. This is here. This is now. We need to start thinking about how lockdown is negatively impacting people’s mental health, and the cost of upholding these strict restrictions both today and tomorrow. I think it’s safe to say that all of us are psychologically affected, to varying degrees of course.

Arguably the first point of call will be medication, psychotherapy, and a whole host of ‘tips and tricks’ on coping. But as we’re all aware by now, everyone is different and will respond differently to these supposed ‘cures’. Alternative options for treatment have been explored in the mental health sphere recently, with CBD gaining in popularity as scientific research demonstrates the positive impact it can have on anxiety, depression and other mental health illnesses, in addition to alleviating the more physical, like chronic pain and cancer. In the wake of this pandemic, Mind Medicine Australia has called for the use of MDMA and psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, to be included as part of the Australian government’s mental health support strategy. Might further exploration into this space be a plausible step forward?

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We will get through this, whilst some of us may leave more scarred than when we entered. When the UK government and health ministers are formulating plans, assessing hospital admissions, death rates, impact on the economy, what should always be in the forefront of their minds is mental health. We need to start thinking about both the physical and mental health costs of Covid-19 when making any decisions. We are not just our physical bodies.

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