Sunday 5 April 2020

Lockdown fever

Quite a lot of us are going to spend considerable amounts of time at home in the next few months. Social distancing will mean that we will have almost no social life. There will be no opportunities to meet up and most of us will not have the daily routine of commuting and sitting in an office. All of these things are happening because of a physical illness, but it will affect how we think and how we feel too.

I believe that the mind has a very powerful affect on the body. People who believe they are going to get well, who remain cheerful and hopeful and full of faith have a better chance of recovery than those who don’t. But when faced with an unknown unseen danger each of us has uncertainty, fears and anxieties about what might or might not happen in the months ahead. But these fears won’t help us, and they may hinder our morale. Better by far to be optimistic, not least because it is the realistic response to this illness.

We all have both physical as well as mental health. Most of us think that mental health is to do with other people, but this is a mistake. In response to certain events each of us is capable of feeling grief, profound sadness and trauma. If you had been a soldier in the First World War you too might have suffered what was then called “shell shock”.

Some of us are better socially than others. Some of us have the good fortune to have a loving husband or wife, brothers and sisters, friends and relations. But lots of people don’t have these things. Marriages don’t work out. Friends move away. Sometimes we move to a new place where we don’t know anyone. Older people in particular frequently live alone.

Some people deal well with being on their own, others struggle, but loneliness is a huge problem and it can kill just like a virus can kill.

There is no shame in being alone and being lonely. It could happen to any one of us and probably will in the next few months. We need to think about those people in our lives who may be lonely. Why not make friends with someone who doesn’t have many friends? Make a phone call, chat on Skype. Make contact with those you know and perhaps don't know even if we all have to keep our distance. 

I believe social media can help as well as hinder mental health. Those people who shout and swear at people they don’t know should think about the damage they might be doing. On the other hand, sharing friendly messages, discussing issues in a pleasant and reasonable way can bring each of us some social contact even if we are stuck at home. We can look after each other’s mental health even when we may for a time have to keep our distance. We can't catch anything on Facebook or Twitter. 

Most mental illness is short term and in response to specific circumstances. There is little or no stigma about this. No one judges Prince Harry because the death of his mother was traumatic. Likewise, if someone’s wife dies and he suffers a period of depression most people would consider this to be normal. So too if a teacher is off work because of stress they are very unlikely to suffer any prejudice.

There are however mental health conditions which are chronic. They are sometimes called scary words, but they may also be just long-term depression for which the person has to take some pills every day to stop it coming back.  The biggest problem people with these types of conditions face is stigma. The prejudice is worse than the illness. It is for this reason that people don’t talk about their illness. They are scared of how they will be judged.

The thing is that most people with long term mental health conditions can live ordinary lives with few difficulties. One of your colleagues may have such a condition. They probably don’t talk about it, partly because medical matters are private, but also because they just want to get on with their lives.

But would you make friends with someone you knew had a long-term mental health condition? What about if it had a scary name? If you were single would you go out with such a person? Would you marry them?

This is the stigma that Prince Harry knows nothing about.

Mental illness like physical illness can be long term or short term. Someone can break a leg and get better or they can lose a leg and be permanently an amputee. But while no one would attach a stigma to someone with a broken leg there is frequently stigma about both physical and mental disability.

Each of us could face a long-term mental health disability. It can happen because of our genetics. It can happen because of trauma such as warfare. It can happen because a short-term depression turns into a long term one. When we get older, we may suffer dementia, a stroke or some other mental disability connected with ageing.

But whether long term or short term, physical or mental each illness could happen to any of us and may well. But there is good news. Just as people with physical illnesses can do amazing things, so too can people with mental illnesses. The same determination that the physically disabled show when they take part in sports, the mentally disabled can show in living completely normal lives.

If you are struggling with mental health, be positive. Reach out to others if you can. Above all be patient. It will get better. There will be smiles again. There will be laughter. There will be love. There will be blue birds. Just you wait and see. 

We all face both a mental and a physical battle in the months ahead. Be kind to those who are ill and judge not. Illness like death and disability “comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.”