According to the Lancet medical journal, by late April 2020, mental health in the UK had already “deteriorated” compared with pre-COVID-19 trends.  It is expected that the recent lockdown measures in-place will take a heavier toll on people’s mental health.

Dr Duncan Astle, programme leader of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, told Sky News in an interview that the latest lockdown may see “somewhat different” effects on mental health compared to previous lockdown restrictions.

"A winter lockdown, in which there are fewer hours of daylight and when it is more difficult to engage in outside activities like exercise, may make a winter lockdown more impactful for mental health, relative to a spring lockdown.  The feeling of uncertainty is also a common symptom in those who experience poor mental wellbeing.  The current lockdown is particularly associated with a newer more infectious strain of the virus, which could itself heighten feelings of uncertainty about what to expect.  Together these factors may make a winter lockdown more challenging for maintaining good mental health." - Dr Duncan Astle, programme leader of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University

Risks to our mental health during the pandemic

The Mental Health Foundation has outlined ten risks to our mental health during the pandemic:

  1. Worrying about things we can’t control - none of us know what is going to happen in the next few months, so deal with you what you are able to. For today, you are doing your best and that is enough. Some people find mindfulness mediation a helpful way to stay in the moment.

  2. Dwelling on gloomy “what if” conversations with friends -try and get out of rumination – chewing things over in your head. Watch for negative thought patterns and challenge them.

  3. Paying too much attention to social media -there’s a lot of speculation about the virus – where it came from, if it is real, what the government is thinking. Try not to get dragged into debate. Don’t speculate and post material that criticises or blames people or can’t be verified. 

  4. Watching too much news - too much coverage can make us all anxious and the pandemic isn’t the only tricky news story in the media this winter. Unless you have to, perhaps look at one bulletin a day.

  5. Judging other people’s behaviours - don’t worry about how others are responding to the restrictions, you can’t do anything about them. It’s easy to let our fear or anxiety come out as anger towards others, gossip, or even angry outbursts. It’s hard, but try to lead with kindness even if people seem to be behaving irresponsibly. If you feel you need to say something, do so politely.

  6. Neglecting your health -we often put a brave face on when times are hard and at the moment people aren’t coming forward as often with health worries that might become significant issues. If you have symptoms of coronavirus, get a test. If you have other health worries – see your GP – lumps, pain, prescription renewals and routine blood tests all still need to happen. Whether it’s physical or mental health the NHS is still open and available. 

  7. Putting up walls - when we are busy with work or struggling with family things it’s easy to but blinkers on and withdraw from friends and family. If you feel yourself pulling back from work, or people bring it to your attention – use this as an opportunity to look again at your wellbeing. 

  8. Getting pushed around by others -sometimes when we feel a bit lost or overwhelmed we can allow ourselves to be directed by others. Sometimes that’s a good thing – our friends and family help us through. It can be hard to resist friends who want you to break rules on social distancing or meeting for example. It can also lead to feeling trapped in toxic relationships or obliged to help people that aren’t good for you.

  9. Going to excess - our research has told us that some people are using alcohol, overeating, over spending and illegal drugs to cope with stress. Try and keep an eye on your drinking, what you are eating and what you are spending. If things are getting of control, find a helpline or speak to someone you trust.

  10. Losing your balance - we’re juggling life, work and family at the moment. There’s a real risk that if we lose the balance of the different strands we can end up in trouble. Try and find a balance between work, home and personal needs and stick to it. You may also want to think about screen time – making sure that you ration video calls if working from home, and tear yourself away from your phone.

Ten things you can do to protect your mental health this winter

The Mental Health Foundation goes on to provide ideas for protecting and supporting mental health this winter:

  1. Reach out for help as early as possible especially with things like debt or finances, or with your mental health. 

  2. Have a routine and set short-term goals - planning for today, tomorrow, the next week. If you have big, difficult tasks on your  plate try breaking them up into chains of smaller, more manageable jobs. 

  3. Build in more breaks and exercise into your schedule –our research has told us that walking and time in nature were the two things that most helped the nation cope with the stresses of the pandemic.

  4. Look at your sleeping habits –sleep is essential for our mental health and if you are having trouble because of worry there are things you can do to improve your sleep, from relaxation to not watching TV in bed.

  5. Find the positives from lockdown - It could be things you did, or challenges you overcame. Ask yourself what was helpful then, and what you can take from that for now. If you can’t go out or feel isolated, perhaps it’s a good time to find an online book group, exercise class or even a choir. If you can volunteer in your community, you can boost your mental health as well as helping others. 

  6. Plan your finances this winter –including making sure you are getting any benefits you are entitled to and getting help with any debt concerns you may have.

  7. Stay connected – whether that’s work colleagues, friends or family - stay connected with your family and friends even if you can’t see them. Make a special effort keep in touch with people you know are on their own and who may be struggling themselves – or who might be shielding and unable to join the fun outside. 

  8. Find time for your needs - it can be easy to serve other people at work or at home, or to fill our diaries with commitments and activities that crowd out our own needs. Whether it’s booking leave from work, shutting the bathroom door for a shower or bath away from the kids, or getting out for a run alone – find something that works for you and make it happen.

  9. Make friends with cold, dark days –if you think of winter as one of the regular seasons, perhaps it could be a time for reflection and doing more things like reading, relaxing, getting warm and cosy and recharging our batteries. When the days are darker and we can’t take our mood energy boosts from socialising in the sun, it may make sense to replace this with another energy-boosting activity like exercise or a hobby like cooking. Going out when it’s dark and cold might seem unappealing, but taking a break from our screens, and getting some natural light during the day can really help our mood. 

  10. Give yourself a reward –it’s important to celebrate small wins – even if that’s just in your head. A win could be clearing a work task or getting through a tricky moment like a supermarket trip. It could just be getting up and dressed. A hot chocolate after a walk outside, a magazine or even a moment of peace on the sofa are all small rewards. 

Click here for more information and resources from the Mental Health Foundation

Or you can visit the Scottish Government 'Clear Your Head' website by clicking here.

HDS Counselling Services are open

If you’re going through a difficult time for any reason, our counsellors are trained to help you explore your feelings and experiences in a safe, confidential and non-judgemental environment. 

HDS also works with organisations, large and small, to offer counselling and psychotherapy as part of their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP).  Our counsellors and therapists have broad experience of working with employees in the public, private and third sectors across Scotland. 

HDS can offer face-to-face, online or telephone counselling.

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