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Mental health pressures will linger long after lockdown

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The number of people with mental illness was rising before the pandemic. Easing restrictions is not enough to improve their lives.

The UK’s lockdown is loosening. Millions of people have been vaccinated and spring is in the air.

Things are looking up; we can stop worrying about that so-called ‘mental health time bomb’ that the pandemic detonated and get back to how things were before. Back to a time when 25 per cent of 16 to 24 year old women harmed themselves, one in four people experienced mental illness, and 74 per cent of people felt so stressed they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. Suddenly ‘before’ doesn’t sound so rosy.

Given the way mental illness has been framed recently you’d be forgiven for thinking it began with the pandemic, or with lockdown. The data do suggest that, on average, people are feeling more anxious and depressed than they were before the pandemic began. But the headline figures obscure a deeper reality – there is a crisis of mental ill health in the UK, but it was here long before the pandemic.

No quick fix

Consider the recent findings from the Office of National Statistics. Reports focused on the dramatic discovery that rates of depression symptoms have doubled during the pandemic. But hidden in that data is a more nuanced picture of pre-existing need.

While the pandemic depression rate rose to 13 per cent among people who could afford an unexpected expense, this remained well below the pre-pandemic rate of 21 per cent for those who could not afford such an expense.  The depression rate for the latter group reached 35 per cent during the pandemic.

Whilst new cases of mental illness have undoubtedly arisen in relation to the pandemic, we should avoid the simplistic narrative that all those who are experiencing mental illness now were mentally well before.

We know from both people with lived experience and decades of research that, in contrast to physical illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, mental health conditions typically emerge early in life. For example, three out of four people who develop clinical anxiety have already done so by the age of 21.

This suggests that many, perhaps even the majority, of those who are reporting depression and anxiety in the wake of the pandemic will have already experienced it in the past. We need to acknowledge that we don’t have a new problem in need of a quick fix; we have a long-term problem in need of long-term investment.

Depressed man on bed

Here all along

Sadly, the pandemic has highlighted what we have known for years: financial instability, lack of social support, discrimination and poor physical health all contribute to higher rates of mental illness.

There is so much we could be doing to prevent mental illness and to support those who live with it.

We could start by ensuring that everyone can afford to eat good quality food, and live in accommodation that’s not cramped and mouldy. There should also be well-funded mental health care which is available as soon as it’s needed and for as long as it’s needed, and appropriate support for people living with domestic abuse.

Before the pandemic struck the proportion of adults with severe symptoms of common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety had been rising, from 6.9 per cent in 1993 to 9.3 per cent in 2014.

As you can see, mental ill health did not begin with the pandemic. It will not be fixed by loosening the lockdown. We need to make sure that in all this talk of mental health awareness we don’t forget people with mental illness. They have been here all along.

Image credits: Woman at window – martin-dm/Getty; man on bed – Marcos Calvo/Getty

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.