Why might COVID-19 be a big issue for those of us with a lived experience of mental health problems?

13th Apr 2021
Challenging mental health inequalities

This content mentions self-harm, eating disorders, trauma and substance abuse and addiction (which may include mentions of alcohol or drug use). Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.

Those of us with lived experience of mental health problems are, sadly, more likely to experience inequality and health challenges.

We are more likely to be isolated and to have other health conditions which make us more susceptible to COVID-19 - and we often find it hard to ask for and get support, even at the best of times.

So, what are some of the major concerns?

1. Many of us have worked hard to find ways to live with distress or symptoms in ways that allows us to function at home and at work or study

The pandemic and social isolation may undermine these or make us vulnerable to crisis until we find new ways of coping.

2. Sometimes, the restrictions on our lives and media reporting of the pandemic can clash with experiences we have had with mental health

If we have challenges around food and eating, a change in the type or pattern of eating and shopping can jeopardise our recovery or upset techniques we have learned to keep well.

The public health messages and media commentary on the pandemic can be triggering for people who experience obsessions or intrusive thoughts relating to contamination or spreading disease. Simple, repeated slogans are needed to persuade people to follow lockdown rules, but phrases like ‘stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’ can have a huge impact, if our distress has always made us believe we should take action to protect others from contagions we believe we might spread.

If we have been detained in hospital or have isolated ourselves in our homes in the past, the need to stay home now can remind us of those times. The media focus on people supposedly breaking government guidance, and the actions of the police enforcing it, might make some us feel more watched or exposed. This may be exacerbated if we’ve had contact with the police or the Criminal Justice System, or if we’ve had similar experiences whilst detained in hospital. Hearing Voices Network developed an excellent resource on surviving the pandemic, for people who have visons or hear voices.

If we have experienced trauma, then our flashbacks may be stronger and more frequent and some of our coping strategies may no longer be available.

Similarly, if we struggle with self-harm or substance misuse, it can be hard to resist urges. We may feel that A&E is no longer an option for emergency treatment – though it is. We may be worried about the risks of abrupt withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.

We may not be able to access our usual support network, see friends or go to our peer support/self-help group. It may be that home is not a safe place.

3. Health services are under pressure and the professional relationships that are often key to our lives may have changed

We may also be worried about accessing medication.

4. A lot of services and support have moved online or over the phone and we may not be comfortable with this kind of support

There are some people who prefer face-to-face and they might struggle more at the moment, because this is far less available.

5. We may feel that our concerns, or any deterioration in our mental health, make us an additional burden on our loved ones, our support system and the NHS

There have been confusing messages in the media about this, and about who ‘deserves’ care. We might understandably be worried that A&E and emergency services may not be available, if things reach crisis point.

Whatever we feel, it is understandable, expected even, that this challenging period for the world will take a toll on us

It’s also a confusing time, because some of us might be coping better than anticipated. We may feel comfortable in ‘crisis mode’ or be used to being isolated or getting limited support, so the pandemic doesn’t feel too different.

If you are feeling like ending your life or feel unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

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