While many are thrilled life could be completely back to normal by the end of the year, Wunderman Thompson's Debbie Wykes analyses the challenges that June 21 is presenting and four strategies that may help
During this Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, it’s important to consider that not all of us are celebrating the end of lockdown. For people with mental health issues, the transition back to how things were before the pandemic hit may be just as tough as the original lockdown itself, if not tougher.
With 46% of the population believing their mental health has worsened during the pandemic according to YouGov Profiles, and with wait times for NHS counselling getting longer and longer, we need to be mindful that a lot of people may be struggling more than it appears as restrictions ease further and our world gradually opens up.
It’s arguable that understanding and openness around mental health have never been more important than during this Mental Health Awareness Week.
Debbie Wykes, Insight & Effectiveness Director at Wunderman Thompson wanted to better understand the challenges that this return to normal presents. She found that this anxiety particularly impacts a fifth of women in the UK, who have been diagnosed with common mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety (according to the latest figures from Anxiety UK). Here’s what Debbie has to say on this important topic and the insights and strategies her expert research illuminated.
How widespread is our anxiety?
In January 2021, at the height of the third-imposed lockdown, there was a 500% increase in online searches about depression, and a 550% increase in searches for physical symptoms of anxiety specifically. By looking at 50,000+ Google searches, streaming engagements and conversations taking place around mental health on UK Twitter and Instagram, it seems the prospect of lockdown ending now seems to have made things worse, not better.
Over the last three months, searches for symptoms of anxiety, signs of social anxiety, medication for anxiety, and high functioning anxiety have increased by 3,100%. On social media, we found 33% of people were anxious about lockdown ending.
People with health issues, mental or otherwise, were explaining why these conditions increase their anxiety about going back to normal, which was especially common among people with autism or physical disabilities. While many are worried about returning to the office, safety and socializing; the majority of conversations are around the disruptive nature of routine change when living with mental health issues that many neurotypical people might not understand.
Most people I talked to are anxious in some way about the return to normal, but it’s important to recognise that for some, the impact on them is more severe than for others.
Why dread is a reasonable reaction – we’re still in a pandemic after all
When talking to some of the 13% of the population who have been diagnosed with anxiety– a stat established by YouGov Profiles – regarding their concerns around lockdown ending, some described an overwhelming sense of dread – after all, we’re still in a pandemic. Many confessed to worries that their anxiety would cause them other issues when lockdown ends, such as changes to sleep and morning routine.
A female respondent in the study revealed that it is difficult for her to explain why she struggles to her colleagues. “I’m worried that when my new morning routine overwhelms me and I’m late for work, my colleagues will think I’m lazy,” she says.
Another woman confessed: “I am worried people will think I am antisocial or even rude because I find social situations hard. I find small talk extremely painful and it is exhausting to be ‘on’ all the time. So, while everyone else is dying to catch up and have parties, I’ m already dreading the effort required to make conversation.”
What anxiety feels like
For those with an anxiety disorder, there can be very real physical symptoms. Symptoms such as panic attacks can be so severe they are often confused with heart attacks. Many describe a constant feeling of their body being in fight or flight mode. Or liken this feeling to ‘being stuck under water,’ ‘being simultaneously dowsed in ice and fire’, ‘the world getting smaller and darker’ or ‘a siren playing all day’. Others talk about an utter exhaustion and the inability to focus the mind on anything else other than anxiety. For those who have never experienced these symptoms, they can be difficult to imagine.
What anxiety sufferers want from others as restrictions ease
We talked to anxiety sufferers to see what we could do to help them as we emerge from restrictions. Of course, anxiety is different for everyone – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to how to help people who are struggling. All you can do is ask and listen and respect what people need…
“Sometimes I need space – not just physical, but mental as well. Hiding behind video calls has really helped me make space when I need it. When I start seeing people in real life I hope they will check in before approaching my physical space or approaching me with tasks that I might not have the mental energy to discuss.”
“The best help my friends have offered through the pandemic is guilt-free plan cancellation. Even on the day, they check I am still okay to meet them or call them etc. They understand now that even if the thing I want most in the world is to see them, I might not be able to manage today. That’s meant the world to me.”
“Easing the anxiety that sits in my stomach loves being treated with some exercise. If I’m not at my desk, I’ve probably taken myself for a small dose of self-love. I like to remind myself that all is well and my anxiety does not define me. Everyone is entitled to go for a walk or ‘step out’ during the day, when we’re at the WFH office.”
“My anxiety tells me that if I speak about what’s worrying me, or just what’s going on in my life, I’m being self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Having friends tell me this isn’t the case, particularly when we meet in person, makes all the difference.”
Four ways we can be mindful about mental health awareness
Share your story with those around you
Sharing experiences makes people more aware of mental health; we saw a 31% increase in social conversations about it since lockdown began. Let’s make this the new normal and make people feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
Check in on people around you
The phrase “how are you?” means more now than ever before, so take care with how and when you ask this question. When you check in on someone, try more personal questions like “how are you feeling at the moment?” or “how is your day going” that are easier for people to answer.
Be patient as people need to take their time
Keep an ear to the ground even when you feel things are back to normal. It may take others longer to adjust. Allow people the time, space and support they need, and if in doubt just ask.
Most important of all, look after yourself
Even if your symptoms aren’t as severe as some discussed here, it is still important to check in with yourself, especially if you’re caring for others with mental health issues. As they say on airplanes, “secure your own mask first before helping others”.
So even if you’re someone desperate to get back to the office or into the pub, this Mental Health Awareness Week, just remember, your friends or colleagues may be some of the 33% who are anxious about lockdown ending. We all need to help each other get back to normal – together.
* If you’re experiencing mental health problems or need urgent support, there are lots of places you can go to for help
* Samaritans (samaritans.org): provides confidential, non-judgemental emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide. You can phone, email, write a letter or in most cases talk to someone face to face. Phone 116 123 (24 hours a day, free to call) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* SHOUT (giveusashout.org): Shout is the UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere. It’s a place to go if you’re struggling to cope and you need immediate help. Text: 85258
* Mind Infoline: (mind.org.uk): The Infoline gives confidential information on types of mental health problems, where to get help, drug treatments, alternative therapies and advocacy. Mind works in partnership with around 140 local Minds providing local mental health services. Call 0300 123 3393 (9am-6pm Monday to Friday) or text 86463. Email: email@example.com