Lockdown represented an unprecedented shift in the degree of social content we experience. Negative effects from this shift are not unexpected: our nature as social animals has long been recognised – and sociality as a dominant force that shapes our behaviour is accepted – even if we accept that a fair degree of this behaviour is learned as being expected.
However, only now do we have enough evidence to start to form a picture of the impact of lockdown – and what its lasting implications might be for both our physical and mental well-being.
The Office for National Statistics has found that even by June, instances of reported depression had doubled from pre-COVID rates (from around one in five adults, to around one in ten). Moving forward to August and 40% of adults reported that coronavirus was affecting their well-being.
It has been found that adults aged 16–39 years are most likely to suffer from depression related to the pandemic. Depression isn’t an island – it has knock-on effects. Around two in five of those affected by depression said that their relationship was affected – double the rate of those without symptoms of depression.
There have been significant increases in people feeling lonely and isolated – both of which open the door to potential future, significant, mental health issues.
Alcohol intake has increased for many people – and this can be a hard habit to break. In fact, this is more of a mixed picture. A survey undertaken by Alcohol Change UK found that lockdown has definitely affected our drinking habits – with around one in five people (which would equate to around 8.6 million adults nationally) drinking more frequently. Around 15% of people said they drink more at each session. But it’s not that clear-cut, because around one in three drinkers have stopped or reduced how much they drink.
In general, people already with agoraphobia are finding that the pandemic has made their anxiety worse – even if some have found that the new imposed distancing provides some relief.
A significant wave of mental health conditions is likely to walk hand-in-hand with job losses, and already the threat of redundance looms large for many. Already (as has been widely reported) UK companies have dropped around 730,000 people from their payrolls. This figure doesn’t include the self-employed. The expectation is that unemployment will accelerate.
And yet, despite the mounting statistics, it is still too early to draw a fully conclusive picture about the impact of the pandemic on both physical and mental health – especially at a personal level.
MorganAsh, provider of support services to both the financial sector and consumers, has shared findings which support the growing picture of a rise in mental health conditions. This challenge, says the company’s managing director Andrew Gething, is matched by another: the reduced supply of available treatments for most people. “It’s a potential perfect storm,” says Gething. “We have a rise in the need for support, but a dwindling availability of support services.”
MorganAsh says that for all referrals to its support services (the majority of which were to its absence intervention service) around 18% sprang from COVID-19-related mental health issues. This likely doesn’t represent the actual numbers: as many people don’t have access to such a service or need to return to work regardless of their condition.
Since most of MorganAsh’s case come via its absence intervention service, the majority of people were off work due to self-isolation. A massive 60% of these people had a resulting mental health issue as a result of their changed circumstance – in most cases, some form of anxiety. Underlying this were serious (and not unreasonable) concerns about COVID-19 – in 80% of cases, that they would pass the condition on to a close family member or vulnerable relative. The remaining 20% were concerned about themselves, and this concern generally sprang from them having an underlying condition which could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 progressing more seriously if they had it – for example, if they were asthma sufferers.
A key goal of MorganAsh’s service is to get people back to work, so they facilitate treatment, support or counselling – and 100% of those referred have either returned to work or are expected to return soon. “For many,” says Gething, “such a service isn’t available, and they would have to navigate the healthcare system under their own steam – and push themselves forward for treatment or support, something which isn’t easy if you’re anxious or depressed.”
MorganAsh has also noted a growing backlog for everyday healthcare services, especially physiotherapy – making it increasingly hard to receive timely treatment. “We’ve manged to source ad procure treatment quickly, avoiding the delays in returning to work that others are experiencing,” says Gething.
Although MorganAsh’s statistics come from a relatively modest sample of people, they do support the larger surveys and give a good indication of COVID-19-related challenges faced by employer and employee alike – however, unlike the larger surveys, there is a clear indication that proactive management of employees, at an individual level, can significantly reduce time of work and its impact.