Is the world on the brink of a mental health crisis, thanks to COVID-19?
This was supposed to be a good year for us.
Max had just started nursery, which meant we’d have more time – and hopefully more money. Business had started to slowly pick up again after a couple of particularly grim years – mostly caused by the impossibility of working from home with a baby /toddler. On Christmas day, my parents surprised us with tickets to Florida for this spring. We were so excited. It felt like there was so much to look forward to: that there was finally some light at the end of the four-year-long tunnel we’ve been working our way through, and that, this year, things were going to be better.
Then COVID-19 hit, and suddenly all of that was gone.
This week, our local health centre was closed due to a confirmed Coronavirus case. This is the same health centre I’ve visited no less than 4 times in the last couple of weeks (After over two years of avoiding the place like … well, like the plague, basically. Trust us to only need to see a doctor at the exact time a pandemic makes it one of the riskiest places to be…), and it sent my already-spiralling anxiety through the roof. That afternoon, when we picked up Max from nursery, we let them know he probably wouldn’t be back until things start to feel a little safer – whenever that may be. We asked family members who were supposed to be visiting that evening to stay away for now, and I went to bed early, my chest tight with panic, and my stomach churning with the most severe anxiety I’ve ever experienced.
This is my life now, basically.
Right now, like (most of) the rest of the population, our lives are completely on hold – and while cancelled holidays and disrupted plans are obviously the least of our worries at a time like this, I’m finding myself worried, not just about the physical health of everyone at risk from coronavirus (So, everyone, then…), but for our collective mental health, too.
Today, for instance, I’m writing this post with hands so dry and cracked from constant washing that it’s painful even to type. As a toddler mum, I already felt like I was washing my hands constantly: now, though, I can clearly see myself tipping into OCD-like behaviour with it – and also with the constant cleaning of door handles and light switches, the wiping down of surfaces, and the endless attempts to disinfect a toddler who’s hellbent on touching everything in sight.
At the pharmacy last week, I had a twenty minute wait to collect my prescription (The pharmacy being inside the same building that’s currently closed due to the risk of infection…), during which I tried in vain to not allow either me or Max to come into contact with anything. To anyone looking on, I must have looked straight-up insane as I chased around after him with my trusty anti-bacterial gel (Which, yes, I know isn’t THAT much use, anyway…), only for him to end up grabbing hold of a door handle (GERM KLAXON! GERM KLAXON!), then rubbing his hand across his face before I could stop him: at which point I almost burst into tears.
This is not healthy behaviour. I mean, even I can see that. What I can’t see, however, is how I can change it: how, under the current circumstances, I can find a balance between reasonable precautions and a descent into the kind of anxiety that is not easily “fixed”, and that is almost impossible to live with.
And it’s not just me, either.
For people with health anxiety, COVID-19 is confirmation of all of our worst fears. It’s the validation we needed to tell us that yes, we were right to worry. It’s the rest of the world finally catching up with us, and it’s the undoing of all of the work we’ve done towards keeping the anxiety at bay. For those who don’t generally suffer from anxiety, though, it’s almost equally scary: and that’s one of the hardest things about it.
For people with health anxiety, COVID-19 is confirmation of all of our worst fears. It’s the validation we needed to tell us that yes, we were right to worry.
Under normal circumstances, if I was dealing with a bout of anxiety, there would be people I could rely on to reassure me, and tell me that the risk was all in my head. This time, though, there’s no such reassurance: and when even the people I think of us unflappable are starting to admit that they’re panicking, you know you’re in trouble.
So I worry: not just about catching COVID-19, but about how the pandemic will change us forever. I worry that the fear of crowded places and Other People will stay with us long after the vaccine has reduced our risk from the virus itself. I worry about how people will cope with isolation or lock-down: as an introvert who works from home anyway, I’m better placed than some to deal with the psychological impact of being stuck at home for days/weeks, but even I’m daunted by the thought of being separated from loved-ones, or of not being able to escape the four walls of my house – which has become claustrophobic enough after what feels like the longest winter on record.
I worry, but mixed in with the fear, there’s also a huge amount of sadness. I keep looking at the photos from this time last year (Which Instagram and Facebook helpfully insist on showing me…), and I can’t even comprehend the difference a year has made to the world. I look at my little boy – who remains totally oblivious to all of this, although I guess it’s only a matter of time before he starts to ask why he can’t go to nursery, or playgroup, or soft play any more – and my heart breaks at the thought of all of the things he’s missing out on as we try to get through this period of uncertainty. His last day of nursery just so happened to be the first day he’d really seemed to enjoy it: when we went to pick him up he was busy painting a picture, and told us he wasn’t ready to leave yet, and, as we walked out of the building – while desperately trying to avoid touching anything in it – I couldn’t help but remember the hope we’d had when we first took him there, back in December. It’s so sad to think that, just a few weeks later, we’re having to pull him out again: just a few weeks that have changed the world, and plunged us into a nightmare we just can’t seem to wake up from.
How are we supposed to cope with this, I wonder? How do we continue with life as normal, when absolutely nothing is normal any more, and even something as simple as a grocery shop is suddenly fraught with risk, and requires everyone to be sanitised as soon they get home? (I say this having just spent the last five minutes wiping down the groceries Terry brought home, while he hit the shower. Despite having suffered from health anxiety for most of my adult life, it’s taken this to turn me into a germophobe – and I can’t really see my way back from it either: or not without a HUGE amount of therapy, anyway…)
One of the problems here is that most of the usual coping mechanisms don’t apply now. Online, every time I see someone talk about anxiety or depression, for instance, there will be a bunch of well-meaning responses from people urging them to seek help: to talk to a professional, to speak to their doctor, to ask for support from friends and family. That’s all well and good, of course, but right now my health centre is closed, my doctor is taking phone appointments only (With priority obviously going to those with serious physical conditions), and, if the current numbers are to be believed, our entire health service is about to be totally overwhelmed.
It has never been harder to access help, and, the fact is, even if my doctor WAS open right now, the health centre is the very LAST place I’d be willing to go: partly because of the risk associated with a place sick people congregate (And yes, I know those with symptoms have been told not to go near their GP, but that message doesn’t seem to have gotten through, if the closure of our surgery this week is anything to go by…), but also because it feels wrong to take up NHS resources in the middle of a pandemic, in which people are actually dying.
And so I guess we wait. Because what else is there to do?
This is not going to be the year we’d hoped it would be: in fact, so far it’s been worse than we could ever have possibly imagined … and even if we all get through it alive, it’s hard to imagine life ever being the same again.
How’s everyone coping?