Pandemic ushers in age of anxiety

Mental health problems another form of “long Covid”

Stress, anxiety, depression: even in so-called “normal” times when help is close at hand, those suffering severe mental health issues can feel isolated and alone, as though they are living in a world of perpetual darkness. But what about now in these unprecedented times when the global pandemic appears at one moment to be on the wane but then strikes again with new variants, continuing to threaten us all? What effect is this having on both those with existing mental health issues and those who have found themselves mentally vulnerable since the coronavirus first raised its vicious head?

In 1948, WH Auden won the Pulitzer Prize for his long poem The Age of Anxiety, which highlights human isolation and emptiness. Auden saw the condition magnified by the lack of tradition and religious belief, but the poem also makes a powerful metaphor for the effect that repeated lockdowns and isolation have had on many people’s lives. Since last October we have been running surveys on the way and extent to which the pandemic has affected our levels of stress and anxiety. In each of the polls, the majority response has always been that the crisis has made us “more stressed and anxious”, but the level of that response has varied throughout the different stages of the pandemic. The question we now face is whether the mental health effects of the pandemic in adults and in children will be temporary or long-term.

In America, increasing numbers of parents are reporting that their children have received professional mental health help since the start of the pandemic and that it is increasingly difficult to even find a specialist with available appointments.

In the UK, mental health disorders currently account for almost a quarter of the total burden of ill health, and as with many issues there are particular concerns for the post-pandemic mental health of those living in areas of social and economic deprivation and already functioning under immense pressure.

Good mental health is closely linked to good physical health, and the long-term impacts of the pandemic could lead to a subsequent erosion of people’s physical health and consequently severely affect their ability to lead fulfilling lives. NHS services and charities such as Mind are at full stretch, raising the question of whether post-pandemic there will be enough support for those most in need of it?

What our surveys show

In our first survey question, as previously, we asked how the Covid-19 crisis and its related problems had affected levels of stress and anxiety. And as previously the majority, this time 57%, said they had become more stressed and anxious. But that figure is down from 77% in January this year and 61% in October of last year who felt the same way. There are also significant differences this time between the generations, with the youngest and oldest groups reporting the highest levels of stress and anxiety.

The numbers saying either that there has been no impact or less stress and anxiety during the pandemic have remained fairly consistent throughout the series of surveys, although this time there was a not insignificant rise from 15% in January to 23% now reporting no impact.

However, our second survey question asking whether Covid-19 will have a long-term effect on mental health, prompted a more concerning, though perhaps unsurprising, response. A figure of 69% believe the effect on mental health will be long-term or permanent, while only 17% said the effect will be short-term or temporary. The remaining 14% said they did not know.

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