Mental Health in Lockdown 2.0

Richard Kelly 18th November 2020

I’m sure we could all sit here and discuss the various failings of the public and government that brought us back to this point, and I’m sure by now you have read and seen several hundred posts and discussions on the matter, but this lockdown feels different to the last one.  Last time, there was a general feeling of solidarity, a mood of sacrifice to overcome a bigger problem.  This time there is a weariness and a cynicism.

One of the lesser discussed aspects of my role as a health and fitness professional is around mental health.  And in times like these finding ways to ensure that your mental health is in a good place is paramount.   For a good many of you reading this exercise is one of those outlets for you.  It is the few hours a week you can detached from the world, test your body and enjoy the freedom and chemical release that gives you.  For others it could be going fishing, or reading a book or having a relaxing bath.  All of these are health releases. 

Sadly for some their releases are not healthy.  They use alcohol or other drugs to numb themselves to the outside world, they strike out at their partners or family, physically or otherwise, in an attempt to release their feelings of frustration.  These unhealthy releases don’t benefit, we can all objectively acknowledge that, but it is surprising how many people fall back on them.  Unfortunately if you know someone who is relying heavily on alcohol to get through this time, or is prone to fits of rage that spill over onto those around them, telling them to stop isn’t always going to cut it. 

Yesterday I received a text message from my GP asking me to follow a link and check if my alcohol consumption was too high.  As someone who typically drinks at most once a week and only a few drinks at a time I was aware that I wasn’t going to score too highly on this test.  Nonetheless I was intrigued by what the questions would be and what advice they offered.  I was surprised to find that someone consuming four to six units a week was advised to cut down, and treated with the same sounding generic advice they would put towards someone consuming fifty units a week. 

None of this is particularly helpful.  I doubt there is anyone out there who is unaware that excessive alcohol consumption is bad for you.  I also believe that relatively few people with a genuine problem would actually even fill out the survey sent to me; if you know you have a problem you are unlikely to want it spelt out to you, and if you don’t know you have a problem you won’t consider your alcohol consumption to be an issue. 

Surveys like this, then, don’t spell out the whole picture; alcohol consumption in the UK has gone up.  We can see this in the fact that alcohol sales for 2020, are up by 31% compared to the same time in 2019.  That is huge.  Especially when you consider that pubs were closed for a significant period in that time.  In the first lockdown people were using alcohol as a self-medicating coping mechanism, and as a form of stress and boredom relief.  But this second time around, with weariness stemming from another lockdown, this is a greater cause for concern, because it is hiding the underlying mental health issue this additional alcohol consumption is clearly medicating for. 

Excessive alcohol consumption is just one way that people use to cope during the pandemic.  There are a number of other unhealthy ways that people try to cope, such as using other substances or using food or binge watching TV.  It is important to understand that some of these things are simply just coping mechanisms, however unhealthy, and used for a short period of time and then discarded.  But for others these can develop into long term dependencies and mask the true underlying and unresolved problems these people have. 

You and I are not trained mental health professionals, and I wouldn’t advise you to approach friends or family and discuss these issues with them, unless they come to you.  What I would say is find ways to encourage them to adopt positive habits.  Take them on walks with you, take the time out to video call them and ‘check in’ with them, but don’t force your lifestyle upon them, as it will only make them resentful and push them away from reaching out for help.  And if you are someone who is suffering mentally during this time, and you are finding unhealthy ways to self-medicate, then I urge you to seek out the help that is available. 

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