COVID-19: a springboard for mental health?

As we acknowledge the various anniversaries of the COVID-19 pandemic and look back over a year of worry and suffering, our thoughts turn naturally to what happens after all this is over. There is light at the end of the tunnel, for the developed world at least, and we all face the prospect of returning to some form of “normal” life and work.

Yet for all the joy and anticipation this prospect brings, it also brings worries of its own. For many it is the worry of putting ourselves at risk again. Returning to in-person events can be daunting for those of us now conditioned to see strangers as threats, and we are now so much more alert to the dangers of contagion. Fears of returning to old habits and bad lifestyles abound too, and fears that we might no longer know how to live and work like we used to. Will we be able to commute again, or have we lost the habit?

This kind of fear has many names but one common term that abounds at the moment is “re-entry anxiety”. More commonly associated with returning to normal activity after trauma – driving again after a car accident, for example – it is more common than you might think. People on long term sick leave often feel trepidation at returning to work, partly out of social anxiety about what colleagues will say, but also a fear of not being up to the job. Cancer patients often worry they will lose their support and healthcare once they recover, and struggle to forget the shadowy prospect of cancer returning in the future.

In the case of COVID-19, there are a few particularly common fears that we need to manage. The first is how we deal the physical danger, whether real or imagined, of returning to normal activities. For people who have been ill or have lost people they love, this fear will be particularly acute. Even with a vaccine, returning to “risky” old habits requires an act of faith. We need to spread positive stories about people returning to normal safely, and put in place simple systems to allow people to feel safe and protect themselves. Asking staff to return to the office should be accompanied by proper risk assessments and information for staff to help them feel safe, and the option for those worried about their health to manage their return at their own pace.

The second is getting back into our old habits. Many of us have abandoned our busy old lives of commuting and travelling, and can hardly remember what it is like to drive on busy roads or sit on crowded trains. The habits we had that kept us safe and allowed us to remember things feel distant or lost, and it can make activities that used to feel second nature suddenly feel alien. The good news is that these old habits are still there though: we can’t forget old habits, just bury them under new, stronger ones. It may feel like your brain has forgotten how to travel to work, or go to a conference, but the loops are still there somewhere. For these fears, we need a different kind of faith: a faith in ourselves to manage these challenges and remember what we need to do. Think back to the first time you did these things, and how quickly you learnt them. Think too about how quickly we have all adapted to the lockdown, and how things that felt impossible a year ago feel second nature now. We should discover again that our minds are very adaptable.

The third is a more complex fear: the fear of losing the things we like about our lives now. For all the difficulties of the pandemic, many people have found things to celebrate, from spending more time with family to enjoying more trust from their employers. We don’t necessarily want to go back to business as usual. This isn’t true for everyone: many people’s working routines have been unaffected by the pandemic, and many more have found their workloads increase to unsustainable levels, or alternatively have lost their jobs or been on long-term furlough. But the quieter pace of life, the reduction in waste and energy consumption, the attention to health and wellbeing, the increased levels of mutual support from friends and family, managers and colleagues, these things are all positive steps that we don’t want to lose.

So it’s time for us to talk about the things we want to keep from 2020-21. We must overcome our fears of irrational dangers or loss of confidence, but we don’t want to throw out the fears of losing things we love. We need to channel those instead into building a new way of living and working, one which reflects our needs better and protects our health more.

Perhaps this pandemic will be the springboard for public mental health and wellbeing to finally hit the mainstream. It already seems impossible to think that in 2008, when we started Mindapples, hardly anyone was sharing simple things people could do to look after their own mental health. Now the point seems obvious. The next step is to turn the individual appreciation for what matters into meaningful changes in how we live and work.

Whether its embedding flexible working, valuing carers and key workers, celebrating global cooperation or protecting the vulnerable, there are many changes we can make for the better in the wake of this tragedy. Let’s hope we take the opportunity.