Simone Fassom, Associate Director and Mental Health First Aider, SEC Newgate UK reflects on huge impacts of the past year and how coming out of lockdown might be just as stressful for some of us as it was going in. As part of our mini series to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week, Simone offers sound, practical tips on how you can adapt to the changes which lie ahead.
I was a child in the mid-80s when Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy were taken hostage at gunpoint in the Middle East and held in captivity for close to half a decade. Their kidnappings made global news and I remember watching terrified as journalists reported on the horrendous conditions they were being held in. The world prayed that all three men were safe, hopeful that the news reports of mistreatment were untrue. My ten year old self had faith that eventually they would be set free from their solitary confinement and would once again enjoy their freedoms and hold their families close to them.
Since their release, all three men went on to talk about the debilitating psychological impact that this confinement had on them and, during an interview I listened to last year with Terry Waite and Brian Keenan, I came to thinking about how their experience in captivity, and the sense of entrapment, is something that those in isolation can relate to today. They may not be sitting in a filthy cell with a gun pointed at their head, but that sense of helplessness, lack of control and inability to connect physically with other human beings are all real consequences of being in lockdown. Experts have warned that the three COVID enforced lockdowns we’ve lived through over the past year have created a mental health ticking timebomb, the results of which will be felt far longer than the physical effects of the virus itself.
The impacts of lockdown
During the early weeks of the first lockdown in March 2020, the Police Federation announced that there were ‘very early indications’ of a rise in suicides and suicide attempts at home. Naturally social creatures, we crave physical human contact, something which lockdown has denied many, leading some who are lonely and vulnerable to suffer terrible mental health challenges. Yet, as we make our way along the government pathway to eased restrictions and greater freedoms, there have been suggestions that some are struggling with the idea of rejoining society again after such a long period of enforced lockdown. Dr Bregman, a psychiatrist from the US has coined the phrase, ‘Cave Syndrome’ to describe this reluctance and anxiety about returning to a ‘normal life’.
During this Mental Health Awareness Week, I think we need to be aware that coming out of lockdown may be just as stressful as it was going in. It may take us time to reconnect with life and to engage with others without fear. Living through lockdown took a lot of emotional energy and we have all drawn on coping strategies to help us find a way through, whether it be enjoying nature, taking up a hobby, or establishing a new routine. Some of these strategies we will be able to hang onto, but others will most certainly change, the obvious one being the return to an office environment if you’ve been used to working from home for the majority of the past year.
COVID cruelly has taken many lives and there will be those who have the added challenge of dealing with grief and coming to terms with a life which doesn’t include certain loved ones. For someone who has experienced a bereavement during lockdown, the idea of suddenly being out in the world again without that person will be extremely tough to deal with. It may be a family member, a neighbour or a work colleague but their absence will become particularly apparent once the world opens up again and they are no longer a part of it.
Taking it gradually
It’s important, therefore, to take things at your own pace, allowing yourself to make small changes whilst you adjust to life outside lockdown. You may be keen to meet with friends, return to the office or resume a busy social life but it’s possible that the reality of leaving isolation will bring on unwelcome and unexpected anxiety. If this is the case, don’t ask too much of yourself and slow it down. Take it gradually and celebrate the wins as they come – the commute into work, a coffee with a friend or a trip to the supermarket. Each one is a significant step along the road to freedom.
Even in the darkest of crises, the human spirit is capable of great things and of overcoming such adversity. John McCarthy and Brian Keenan kept each other alive during those difficult years of confinement, but their story didn’t simply end the moment they were rescued. It’s well publicised that trying to rejoin their old lives was a challenge – rather it was the beginning of a new journey, one that was tough to navigate and, in the case of John McCarthy, led to the breakdown of his long-term relationship with the woman who’d campaigned tirelessly for his release. As Hostage International points out, hostages go through a period of reintegration with society which can take months, sometimes years, and the same may well be said of those emerging from lockdown, hoping for a return to ‘normal’ yet fearing that the old ‘normal’ no longer exists.
For those who are struggling with the idea of restrictions lifting, The Mental Health Foundation has some incredible resources for those who want to find out more. I’d highly recommend the article Looking after your mental health as we come out of lockdown for some great tips.