‘If we pull together everything will be OK.’ That was the message politicians gave us when the pandemic began. But, more than a year on, serious questions are being asked about the cost of lockdowns. Claire Musters takes a closer look at how months of isolation have affected us all
Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. That message has been repeated again and again over the past twelve months, as ministers and health officials have urged us to stay inside in order to beat Covid-19.
While the majority of the population has kept the rules, the voices of those criticising the lockdown policy have grown louder over time. When the first lockdown began, there were relatively few detractors. One of them was the Christian apologist Rev Joe Boot, who penned an article for the Ezra Institute entitled: ‘COVID Calamity: When the Cure is Worse than the Disease’. Boot said the UK lockdown was “draconian” and criticised the “daily diet of apocalyptic headlines”, arguing the decision to quarantine those without symptoms “cannot be supported from Scripture” and “knows no precedent in the West”. In his view, lockdowns were counterproductive: “The vulnerable elderly actually have their lives prolonged by social contact, events, recreation and hobbies. We may in fact be shortening the life expectancy of millions by these measures.”
However we feel about the government’s approach, and whether we’re aware of it or not, these lockdowns have had a profound effect on our emotional wellbeing. In talking to experts, it’s clear the question is not ‘Do lockdowns affect our mental health?’ but rather ‘How do lockdowns affect our mental health?’
We have all been living under the threat of the virus for many months now, but human beings were not designed to live with ongoing threat, nor the level of uncertainty that the ever-changing regulations have caused. As Rev Will van der Hart, a director of the Mind and Soul Foundation, explains: “This is like being plugged into an adrenal drip for a year. Our adrenal system should run for 15 minutes at a time to help us escape from danger and then return to its normal state. But we’ve been hard-wired consumers of adrenaline for twelve months and wonder why we’re not sleeping, why our appetites have changed, why we’re on edge all the time.”
The impact has certainly been intense. Stress and anxiety are commonly reported by keyworkers: one nurse in charge of a Covid team told me at the start of the second lockdown that many of her colleagues were being signed off work with PTSD. Natalie Williams of social charity Jubilee+ has seen “increasingly desperate” people at her local food bank, who are struggling with “deeply worrying levels of stress, anxiety and depression”.
The problems are numerous but interconnected: some are coming to terms with the emotional and physical effects of ‘long Covid’ while others must deal with the grief of not having been able to say goodbye to a loved one. With 1.74 million people unemployed (the highest figure in five years), the added stress of economic hardship is taking its toll too. Meanwhile, health visitors are worried about the lack of social stimulation for young children, school closures means the education of school-age children and teenagers has been disrupted, parents juggling jobs and overseeing online schooling have been reaching burnout, and mental health issues are increasing across the board. The Youth Index, published in January by the Prince’s Trust in partnership with YouGov, found more than half of young people aged 16 to 25 were ‘always’ or ‘often’ feeling anxious – the highest level ever recorded.
Loneliness is an issue that has concerned van der Hart, as those who have had to shield as well as those who have been furloughed for months on end have faced isolation, intense loneliness and boredom. “One of the groups of people that we have felt most concerned about has been single people unable to socialise. The sense of hopelessness and pessimism has been really prevalent in that group.” No one knows for sure what the long-term impact will be – as van der Hart reminds us, we haven’t got all the data yet, as we are still living through it: “You can identify very traumatic and difficult circumstances and anticipate problems. But equally we know two people can have exactly the same experience, but only one of them might actually go on to develop any emotional mental health problems as a result.”
Parallels are being drawn with the Second World War. Boris Johnson has even called himself a wartime prime minister. Most of us have never experienced war, but we have had to pull together as a country in the face of horrific circumstances. We have faced a terrifying death toll and, due to visiting restrictions in care homes and hospitals, people have been dying away from their loved ones. This pandemic is one of the few times that our nation (and world) has shared such a deep sense of collective grief.
In ‘Gender, Grief, and Bereavement in Second World War Britain’, history professor Lucy Noakes says self-control, stoicism and putting the needs of wartime community over those of the individual were posited as the best approach. She concludes that while the encouragement of such emotional restraint enabled people to keep going, it left a legacy of loss.
Although loath to draw too many wartime comparisons, van der Hart does recognise we have been stuck in a perpetual cycle of grief, never reaching the latter stages as each lockdown restarted the process again. “It isn’t dissimilar to people’s experience in the world wars, where you might, for example, lose a son in battle and then begin the grief process only to then find out you’ve lost another son in another battle and then find out your neighbour was killed by a bomb. This stuttering and cyclical repetitive cycle of grief is very challenging. Compound grief is so difficult because you have to separate all the segments, to work out what it is that you’re grieving.
“My fear is that we rush away from our grief. I’m nervous about anything that would make us jolly ourselves along. After a time of sufferance and challenge, everyone wants to forget. But in order to forget, you have to remember – that is a core part of what it is to grieve. We need to collectively remember if we’re then going to heal.”
The opportunities we would usually have to bring a sense of belonging – sitting next to a friend, giving someone a hug etc – have been replaced by necessary restrictions that reinforce rejection (mask-wearing, for example, obstructs face-to-face interaction). Some have responded by adopting unhealthy behaviours; the British Liver Trust reported a 500 per cent rise in calls to its helplines and, as this magazine reported last year, domestic violence has surged too.
There are temptations for all of us to slide into less than helpful daily habits and routines. For those isolated at home alone, without work, it is easy to feed on a diet of junk food and Netflix. But for others working from home, the tendency, according to new data, is to work too much. Pre-pandemic, the average time spent working was eight and a half hours a day; it has now risen to eleven. As van der Hart observes: “self-care and boundaries are surely taking a hit”.
Many of us try to press on rather than face the pain of loss or grief, but if we squash our emotions down, they will have nowhere to go – and will eventually erupt at some point; often through unhealthy behaviours, sometimes directed to those who have nothing to do with the original emotions.
Being aware of our needs
Whether we continue to work from home, or are transitioning back into workplaces and schools, we can make choices that, over time, will have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Just being aware of the fact that we are living with extra stress helps us to be more compassionate to ourselves and anyone we live with. As Dr Kate Middleton (also a director of the Mind and Soul Foundation) explains: “Life is a bit like climbing a wall – you know where all the handholds are, so you can just do it without thinking. But [the] pandemic has knocked out every aspect of normal life. So you’re climbing a wall, but there are no handholds. And actually, the wall’s changed too. And every time you figure out how to climb it, there are new boulders or a handhold’s moved. It’s constant demand on your mind, which means that your stress baseline has risen.”
We all have a point where our mental and cognitive resources are about to be exceeded. With the baseline risen right up to near that crisis point, any little challenge in everyday life can tip us over into what is called “the overwhelm space”. Here, our brain “starts to close down anything that feels non-essential. So your ability to think clearly is dropped right down. You can’t focus. You can’t remember things as well. Your emotions are really close to the surface.”
This is not a normal space for us to live in. We need to be patient and give ourselves time to process what we have faced in the last year. Ensuring we exercise daily, eat healthily, limit screen time, get enough sleep and don’t watch too much news (if we recognise it has a negative effect) can all have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Often when we feel lonely, our natural instinct is to further isolate ourselves, but that exacerbates negative feelings. Even though we can’t physically meet together in groups, reaching out to those we trust is a vital way to give and receive support.
Although many community spaces are still closed, church-based projects are busier than ever and may appreciate extra volunteers. Williams, who lives alone, says: “When I am struggling with lockdown or feeling down in general, what it says in Isaiah 58 rings true – when I pour myself out on behalf of those in need, then my healing comes and my gloom becomes like the noonday. There are so many opportunities to love our neighbours, serve our communities and bless others at the moment – whether it’s volunteering to call people who are isolated, to pack food parcels or to deliver items to people facing difficulties at this time.”
As we begin to emerge from lockdown, we will need to be compassionate, considerate and caring to one another, being honest about our own emotions, and allowing space to listen to those around us.
Can we learn from this?
Perhaps there are lessons that we can take away from this time too. Van der Hart says: “While I’m loath to look for unforeseen benefits of lockdown at this stage of a pandemic, I believe that we’ve struggled to really assess the dislocated way in which we’ve been living for a number of years.
“May we learn to really value the other, not to see the other as a commodity. The saying goes: ‘Love people and use things, but don’t use people and love things.’ I think, to an extent, we were in that space for a long time.
“I wonder whether we’ll look back and see that there’s an offset positive in this difficult experience, in that a vast number of people are becoming aware and educated about their mental and emotional health.”
Dr Middleton also wonders whether our struggle over the loss of control will ultimately lead us to hope: “One of the first things that God says to human beings is to ‘subdue the earth’ [Genesis 1:28]; effectively, take control over it. So it’s built into all of us as human beings. It’s interesting how much of this season has challenged that.
“What happens to people when they’re forced to endure under something like this? In Romans 5:3- 5, Paul talks about when we’re in that space, it can actually refine our character; it changes something of the way that we think and act and react to the world. And if we can hold that well, it leads us back to hope, he says. That’s really interesting, alongside psychological research, which demonstrates that in those situations where there’s a big loss of control, we can learn that there are little things that we can control.”
She explains that as we make small, positive steps, our mood is lifted, and that grows into something bigger – resilience. “It triggers what some psychologists refer to as ‘the hope circuit’, the parts of your mind involved in this more positive response to difficult situations. The evidence is that the more you do that in the moment, the more it increases your capacity and ability to do that in future. So who knows, maybe, in the midst of all this pressure and pain, there is actually something really unexpected – a potential of releasing something.”
Mental health charities
A wide variety of Christian mental health charities, including Mind and Soul Foundation, Kintsugi Hope, Renew Wellbeing, Sanctuary and ThinkTwice, have been working to deliver helpful resources during the pandemic, which include videos and online events.
‘God’s plan for your wellbeing’ was launched early this year. It is based around the story of Elijah found in 1 Kings 19 and looks at seven areas of wellbeing: our mindset, physical, emotional, spiritual, relationship, vocational and financial and how they all impact one another. Dave Smith, pastor of Kingsgate Community Church, says: “Wellbeing has been a hot topic for some time, and I had been on my own journey looking at the balance in my own life, which resulted in me writing the devotional that accompanies the course. I am so grateful to God for the timing of its publication and now the course, which means it can be utilised by churches as they deal with the massive impact of Covid-19.”
This is an online resource, Headstrong, for young people that focuses on wellbeing, as well as providing advice on surviving lockdown and isolation and a space to post questions.
Love and loss in lockdown
When Evelyn Horsfall’s cancer became terminal, she and her husband, Tony, were moved to a care home. While there, they both contracted coronavirus. Tony was hospitalised in intensive care for nine days, then he recovered. But as Evelyn’s symptoms worsened, the couple were separated for a month. Sadly, Evelyn passed away last July. She was 73.
Tony, who is a mentor, speaker and writer, shared his story very openly on his Facebook page and has subsequently published a book, Finding Refuge (Charis Training). He shares his own practical strategies and advice for others who may be struggling:
• Find good people to talk to, who will listen to and reflect back to you as you share.
• Daily exercise. I walk every day for 30–60 minutes regardless of the weather. Often I ‘walk and talk’ with individual friends.
• Schedule conversations for the lowest points in your week. For me, evenings and especially weekends are tough.
• Keep a sense of perspective. If you live alone this is especially important.
• Seek outside help to maintain your spiritual poise. I listen to the Lectio365 app, which feeds my soul even when I’m low.
• Cultivate gratitude and thankfulness. See what you do have. Be grateful for people who are there for you.
• Sing and praise God, right into the storm.