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This post is by associate Triage Practitioner, and guest blogger, Matthew Savage 

The UK, like many other nations, has seen a dramatic increase in mental health problems since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It is said that over 10 million people may need to access mental health services over the next couple of years (Guardian, 2022) but already over half of patients referred have been waiting over three months for treatment and one in 10 have been awaiting treatment for over a year (Mind, 2022). This is being coined the “second pandemic” by some medical practitioners and, as restrictions come to an end on April 1st, many people may be feeling anxious about the expectation of “returning to normal”. Because of this, it is important to consider the challenges that many people may face as we move forward from the pandemic. What are likely to be the main concerns for mental health services moving forward and what can individuals do to try and manage their anxiety or support those who may be suffering?

Long COVID 

With an estimated 1.3 million people self-reporting long COVID symptoms (ONS, 2021), this will be of concern to many as more experience the virus. One study looking at a sample of over 700,000 participants and 153,848 previously infected people suggests that those who have suffered with COVID may be 60% more at risk to mental health problems, with anxiety and depression rates for those infected being 35% and 39% higher than before infection. Long COVID will continue to be a consideration for many with symptoms including extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain, brain fog or problems concentrating, heart palpitations, dizziness and other symptoms (NHS, 2022). With an average age of 63 years old in the study, it will be important that these individuals are supported by the NHS regularly for a minimum of 12 months after infection.

Mental Health in Children and Adolescents

Adolescents are known for their risk-taking behaviour, with the ages of 16-19 years old being the least risk adverse age group (RCPCH, 2014). However, with children and adolescents spending the last two years dealing with lockdowns, setbacks in education and restrictions on socialising, this age group have seen one of the sharpest rises in mental health problems. As restrictions are fully lifted, many adolescents and children will be happy to return to normal, exploring the world, socialising and enjoying more freedom. However, between 2020 and 2021 there has been a 72% increase in children and young adults being referred to eating disorder clinics and with 349,449 under-18s referred to NHS child and adolescence psychiatric teams at the end of October 2021 (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2021), many individuals will still have mental health problems and this will be a concern for many parents. With this figure being the highest on record, it will be important that children and adolescents feel supported in the transition to normal.

Health Anxieties

Many people have become accustom to wearing masks, social distancing and not visiting busy places and the expectation to return to normal may raise anxiety levels for many. It is estimated that 88% of people continued to wear a mask when outside the home in some circumstances in the first week of February and that disabled people are by far the least optimistic about returning to normal (ONS, 2022), suggesting that many people continue to engage in safety behaviours. These behaviours also regularly include different types of avoidance, distraction, preparing and checking items such as keys or locks. Being able to notice such behaviours in friends and family and being kind and considerate to others who continue to engage in safety behaviours will be important moving forward.

What can we do to manage our own mental health?

With all of the above concerns covering all age ranges, the NHS will be under much pressure to expand its mental health capacity. However, it is also important to consider potential steps which we can all take to help manage our own mental health as we move forward and to consider these when trying to help others.

Connect with others

Whilst many people remain worried about socialising in big groups or in enclosed spaces, it must be stressed that connect with others is vitally important to mental health. Considering how you can incorporate positive connections into your life is extremely important, as well as supporting those connections for others. If you are worried about socialising indoors, then continue to meet people outside, or sit on tables in pub gardens or cafes. Join a club which allows outdoor meetups. Having others to talk to and for support is vitally important when working through difficult times and this is extremely important for parents to consider when trying to support their children. Consider the shift may be extra difficult for them so taking an interest in their day, listening and taking their problems seriously are all great ways to foster positive relationships. Helping them to build consistent routines again and encouraging their interests is also vitally important when supporting children to flourish.

Learn something new

Research suggests that a continuation of learning can enhance mental wellbeing and can help people who may feel they are unfocused in their daily lives. Learning something new, such as taking a photography course, a short cookery class, a new language or an online course may help to increase creative thought, reflective practice and self-esteem. Consider your own core values and look for learning opportunities that are in tune with these or consider undertaking a learning project with a friend or family member.

Exercise and physical activity

Working out, going for a run or a brisk walk can work wonders for increasing mental wellbeing and can also be a great social event. It is important to not forget this as restrictions are lifted. Starting is the hardest part and so it is important to reward yourself after completing exercise when first starting out. Using both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational techniques and rewards can help habit formation and adherence. Consider exercising as part of a group, club or class and allow yourself to be rewarded after your sessions with something as simple as a warm drink or healthy lunch with a friend.

Be Mindful

Be aware of your surroundings and take a moment to appreciate the things that you have. Mindfulness meditation apps can be used to support forming this habit but simply taking a moment each day to reground and focus on what you are grateful for can increase mental wellbeing. Gratitude diaries are a great way to do this, writing down something you are thankful for each day and a goal for the next. Reflecting on your experiences throughout the day can also help you appreciate what matters.

Understanding is key

Whilst it is easy to assume the worst when feeling under the weather, understanding that many symptoms of anxiety and depression can be the same as COVID is vitally important. Understanding that heart palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pain can be anxiety related and brain fog, lack of concentration and fatigue can be symptoms of depression can do wonders for reducing those symptoms in the moment. If you are concerned about symptoms you may be experiencing, always visit your GP. But knowing the symptoms of these mental health conditions is also important as a first step to try and combat them personally. Mental health services, such as those offered by Sparta Health, will be vital in providing support to all as things return to the “new normal”. But personal understanding and undertaking certain behaviours can also contribute to supporting our NHS and mental health services as we push forward to a brighter future.

 

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage is an associate triage practitioner and neurological personal trainer. He has two masters degrees, one in psychology, another in clinical neuroscience at the distinction level and is also a Level 3 Personal trainer. Matthew combines his knowledge and interest in neuroscience, cognitive and physical rehabilitation and general wellbeing to provide positive physical and mental support to his clients.

References 

Gregory, A (2022). Millions in England face ‘second pandemic’ of mental health issues.

National Health Service (2022). Long-term effects of coronavirus (long COVID).

Office of National Statistics (2022). Prevlance of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK.

RCPCH/NCB/British Association of Child and Adolescent Public Health (2014). Why children die: death in infants, children, and young people in the UK.

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2021). BBC Digital Child and Adolescence Mental Health Report.

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