Disappointment, fear and frustration are not the feelings traditionally associated with a New Year, but as we look towards January 2022, this is what many of us are feeling as the pandemic spikes yet again.
My family spent the holidays in self-isolation, a small reminder of the way this pandemic disrupts our lives and of those who have lost so much more. But, as the New Year beckons, it has never been more vital to find and hold reasons to hope.
Thanks to the huge efforts of the scientific community and our fantastic NHS, vaccines have made us much safer than a year ago. But, as we all know from experience, there’s no vaccine for the mental health effects of the pandemic. Loneliness, fear, worry, hopelessness and frustration have affected many millions of us.
Our own research suggests that these difficult experiences are especially common among groups of people who were disadvantaged even before the pandemic.
So, as 2022 knocks on our door, what keeps me more hopeful than afraid? One encouraging trend I see is people’s growing understanding and appreciation of mental health.
Last week, I met a business leader whose company employs thousands of staff. Despite trading for 30 years, he said he had only just recognised that unless the business does more to attend to the mental health of its staff and customers, it cannot fulfil its potential.
Mental health is now part of the discussion about how we should deal with new waves of coronavirus. There’s widespread recognition that uncertainty, isolation, financial worries, and unemployment can be devastating for people. But also plenty of room for more effective government action in response.
Public discussion about how the pandemic has affected us psychologically is itself helping to demystify mental health. There seems to be a greater understanding that it’s something that we all have, every day and that it’s affected by what we do ourselves and by things that happen to us.
We are also understanding that because the prevalence of mental ill-health and suicide increase as you move down the socio-economic ladder, addressing mental health is a social justice as well as a health issue.
Media coverage is helping with understanding mental health – it has been more thoughtful in relation to the pandemic than any previous global event.
I am also heartened by the many powerful demonstrations of public support for mental health, including for us at the Mental Health Foundation. It’s an ongoing reminder that people know and passionately care about the profound, daily difference that mental health makes to all our lives.
So, to the many who have supported us through 2021, I thank you so much. We couldn’t have developed and expanded our work without you.
And being hopeful is different from complacency. We still need to see a dramatic shift towards prevention. By the time people need mental health services, we have already failed them by not addressing the things that we know create distress.
The experiences of poverty, including food poverty, insecure housing, insecure employment, unemployment, abuse and neglect, as well as poor access to green spaces, loneliness and isolation all increase our risk of poor mental health.
They are barriers to us meeting psychological needs like safety, dignity, meaning, empowerment and connection, all of which are essential for good mental health. Both national and local governments must work more closely with communities, charities and individuals to tackle these barriers and give everyone the same opportunities to thrive.
At the Mental Health Foundation, we will keep making this radical case in the year ahead.
We will also keep responding to the pandemic, as we have since it started.
We will continue to expand our Covid-19 advice hub and keep using the evidence from our study that tracks the pandemic’s effects on mental health to inform and influence governments and other decision-makers. We will expand our Covid Response Programme, which across the UK is responding to the needs of people who, research suggests, have been worst affected by the pandemic.
Alongside this, we will continue a wide range of other work, including supporting children, families, and young people, as well as older adults. During Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ll highlight loneliness and its consequences for us all.
Hope can co-exist with struggle. While there will be tough times ahead in 2022, let’s do all we can to hold onto hope and work for change. Let’s continue to fly the flag for mental health and the many ways that we can all, individually and collectively, care better for it and for each other.
Especially in these days, I wish you and yours a hopeful, mentally healthy New Year.