How the pandemic has affected my mental health – for the better

Cover image by Nahal Sheikh

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Everyone remembers where they were on Monday 23rd March 2020 – the transition into what became the ‘new normal’. Fewer, however, contemplated just how much it would profoundly shape everyday life. In my case, for the better.

On the morning after the Prime Minister’s address to the nation, with my haversack stuffed, I made an escape from my accommodation in Canterbury and returned home to rural Hertfordshire. Walking to the station on a beautiful spring dawn, I saw fresh buds blooming, and the River Stour – streaming alongside the cobbled footpaths – glistened like stalactites. But the beautiful landscape was accompanied with an ominous silence. A sound of a new and lonely beginning.

Homebound on the train, watching the Kentish countryside flicker past my window, it was hard to gauge the impact self-isolation would have, especially on my welfare. Burdens had been building months before the outbreak – not only was I drowning in coursework, I had also been laid off at work and recently split up with my long-term girlfriend. 

For the first time in my life, panic attacks, depressive episodes and social anxieties attributed to my Asperger’s syndrome became regular occurrences. I started to dwell on how the pandemic would worsen these emotions.

Of course, I was not unique in feeling this way. In 2014, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 20% of UK residents aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. And last December in 2020, as many as 10 million Britons had requested additional social support — a national emergency in itself.

Of course, additional data analysis is needed to realise how the coronavirus has altered these already damning figures. Sadly, it is evident – simply from my one-to-one conversations with friends and stark warnings from social care officials – that it has exasperated the crisis of mental health; an issue that will outlast the pandemic for years, if not decades.

So, I was surprised to notice my fortune take a turn for the better weeks into quarantine. Not only was I physically healthier, but I was also mentally fitter. I had not felt this positive in years. What caused this change in attitude? Moreover, why am I on the up when thousands of others are down?

For one, the stress of daily commuting to college – which typically included a packed morning of lessons, followed by an intense day overseeing my campus publication, and a late-night reading cram – no longer mattered. The bustle of being trapped in a study block, eating microwave-ready meals and overwhelmed by responsibilities, was over. 

Knowing that the majority of my time would be restricted indoors, I realised the importance of establishing a healthy routine. Something as simple as a 5 km run, reading a book chapter, making my bed, writing a diary entry or cooking dinner for my siblings was a worthwhile way of shrugging off pressure. 

Back then, it was easy  for me to fall into toxic habits – drugs, excessive drinking, binge eating – even at the best of times, let alone when I was continuing to navigate my Asperger’s syndrome. Avoiding this fatigue became essential.

Alex Game, a policy researcher at the British Conservation Alliance, found his productivity in cycling, a “liberating experience at a time when we are all cooped up inside”. His girlfriend also found solace in a skill unorthodox to most youngsters: knitting. “This has given her some enjoyment and has been completely self-taught. She recently knitted my mum an ear warmer for a Christmas present. It’s helped up our spirits, even in this disastrous time.” 

By creating structure and lessening the demands, I now spend more time with the people dearest to me. Sure, I continue to hold frequent Zoom and phone calls with friends but living at home means having that consistent contact with my parents and siblings. Summer garden barbeques with my step-dad and daily jogs with my mother offered me a new appreciation for my loved ones and the sanctity of my surroundings.

Michael Schutzer-Weissmann, a student in Edinburgh, equally found this to be the case over the last several months: “I am in an immensely privileged position; I have space to work and relax at home and a loving family. The sacrifices I have had to make and the struggles I have encountered are negligible in the grand scheme of things.”

I, like Michael, am part of a privileged few with access to a strong network of colleagues and relatives, all from the comfort of my parent’s lodging. Equally, I understand the challenges others have faced in defeating this deadly contagion. Of course, I am talking about key workers on the front-line; as well as those who have already made huge losses – their livelihoods, their loved ones, their employment statuses and so on.

Ultimately for me, the struggle of shutdown has given me greater control. Not only that, but I am more content, fit, pro-active and confident. Now I endeavour to locate ways to remain mindful. I should know, because as of writing the government is undertaking the largest vaccination rollout in its history. Sooner or later, restrictions will loosen and the ‘new normal’ we have been so accustomed to will draw to an end.

Returning to the bustle of ‘normality’ is something people crave. Nonetheless, this leaves me apprehensive. As someone living under the stringiest measures, one simply must ask: What next? Certainly, I will miss spending each hour with my loved ones. I will also miss the peace of mind beset of pressures. Whatever happens, keeping in contact with those closest to me will be vital to maintaining my personal growth.

“I know I’ve been there when you feel like you’re shot and alone,” says Cardiff Conservative’s wellbeing officer, Joe Kidd. “It’s hard to comprehend when you’re in a bad place, but there is always someone who’s always ready to listen.”

In times of grief, people can emerge from trauma stronger. Lockdown has gifted me with a greater sense of direction and made me a stronger person than I was a year ago. Taking those first steps into the world post-Covid will bring its daunting set of challenges, something I have not yet begun to comprehend. But in making that journey comes a newfound purpose that will prepare me for what lies ahead of the ‘new normal’, no matter how unexpected.

Article by Bill Bowkett

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