Lockdown has had a catastrophic impact on so many aspects of our lives, not least in terms of mental health.
For some, depression has been triggered or exacerbated by worries — a study this year by Exeter University and King’s College London found loneliness emerging as a key factor linked to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Mental health charity Mind has also revealed half of adults felt their general wellbeing worsened in 2020, with many experiencing mental health problems for the first time.
Yet in the midst of such bleak statistics, a counter-narrative has emerged. It seems that depression has, for some, become more manageable.
Lockdown has had a catastrophic impact on so many aspects of our lives, not least in terms of mental health
Known as ‘lockdown relief’, it appears for some people an enforced break from normal routine and stresses has been a help.
A study by Manchester University on the number of people seeking mental health help for the first time found that during the first lockdown, the figures for depression dropped by 43 per cent, and for anxiety by 48 per cent, compared with similar periods over the previous ten years.
While this could reflect reduced access to mental health services, the researchers said they couldn’t rule out that rates of mental illness were lower.
‘As humans we usually thrive on social connection for our mental health and sense of wellbeing,’ says Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at The Priory clinic in Roehampton.
‘But for some people, the lack of contact has meant they don’t feel as stressed and exposed to those aspects of ordinary life that the rest of us take for granted but which affect their situation.
Known as ‘lockdown relief’, it appears for some people an enforced break from normal routine and stresses has been a help. People are seen in Trafalgar Sqaure, London in May 2020
‘When you’re in a state of depression any contact with people can be stressful for some. But in lockdown, you can filter away from all that. So symptoms can be easier to manage.’
Toby Ingham, a psychotherapist based near Oxford, agrees. ‘Often it’s interactions with the outside world that trigger anxiety and stress,’ he says. ‘During lockdown, taking a break from the outside world has been the rule we’ve had to follow so we can’t be blamed or shamed for keeping to ourselves when we are in fact doing our duty to protect each other and the NHS.’
The permission to ‘take a break’ from the outside world may also explain research by a team at University College London who surveyed more than 74,000 people and found that, despite an initial decline in happiness prior to the lockdown last March, wellbeing rose over the last few weeks of April, and anxiety levels fell for people with and without existing mental health disorders.
In the midst of such bleak statistics, a counter-narrative has emerged. It seems that depression has, for some, become more manageable
Another reason those with mental health issues might have received a boost is that they no longer feel isolated, suggests Dr Elena Touroni, a psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
‘Depression can make us feel very alone. When people around us are out and about having fun, it can heighten this. In lockdown, we were all in the same position. You could say there was a clear, identifiable reason why we might be feeling low. This can provide a sense of relief for those struggling in normal times.’
Jason Ward, a senior psychotherapist at the DBT London clinic, said some of his clients with depression have shown improvement because of an increased willingness to mix with others, now that they can do so online.
Zoom sessions developed through lockdown proved invaluable to those with acute depression who were previously reluctant to attend in person.
‘Group therapy and skills sessions are now available to almost everyone, anywhere in the UK and a connection with others has, for a number of my clients, nurtured a sense of community and reciprocity and they’ve come to realise that group sessions, along with personal therapy, offer great insight and support,’ he says.
With the easing of restrictions, it’s vital to take gradual steps when integrating again so as not to feel overwhelmed, says Dr Touroni.
‘And try to identify what led to a rise in your symptoms — once you understand what’s at the root of this feeling, you can start taking steps towards changing it.
‘It’s about creating a life that feels meaningful and fulfilling to you.’