The emergence of two new variants of COVID-19 which are thought to be up to 70% more infectious have resulted in new lockdowns being imposed in countries across the globe. In the UK, a new national ‘level 5’ lockdown has been implemented due to fears that hospitals were just three weeks away from being totally overwhelmed. A leaked report suggested that even with the best case scenario, UK hospitals would be short of around 400 intensive care beds.
Germany has extended its lockdown until at least the end of January and has banned non-essential travel following a spike in new infections. Japan has declared a state of emergency which will be implemented from 7th February due to record levels of infections. The emergency measures there will include a return to working from home, restrictions on non-essential travel, limited numbers at sports events and a closure of bars and restaurants by 8pm. They are not alone however and many more countries are experiencing surges in cases. The US continues to be one of the largest coronavirus hotspots, with daily cases topping the 250,000 mark at the time of writing.
Whilst mass vaccination is likely to be the only way out of the pandemic, this will realistically take months to implement. Logistical challenges and lower than promised supplies means that we are all likely to be living with substantial restrictions for at least the next three months and quite possibly longer. After such a difficult 2020 there was much hope that the new year would bring with it some relief, but instead January is feeling very much like the iconic 1993 movie Groundhog Day which starred Bill Murray.
With new lockdowns, home schooling, shielding for the vulnerable and work from home taking center stage, there are concerns that people’s mental health will suffer in the coming months. This is due to several reasons. The first is that we are entering this next phase of the pandemic with our eyes wide open. We know the struggles and the challenges faced last time and so have a realistic view of what the next few months are going to be like. In addition, we do not have the summer months upon us through which to enjoy our gardens, the fresh air and the sunshine. As a parent myself, we spent much of the last lockdown in our garden, and the children were able to play, exercise and soak up the sunshine bringing a much needed release from the stresses and worries of the time. This time, the weather is bleak and much of the activities are taking place inside of the home. This can make you feel boxed in, stressed and depressed.
One mental health expert described the current situation as a ‘ticking time bomb’ in an article by The Sun newspaper with Emma Thomas, Chief Executive at YoungMinds commenting: ‘The pandemic is deepening the crisis in young people’s mental health and there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the impact could be significant and long-term.
“Young people tell us that they’ve struggled to cope with the changes and loss of coping mechanisms brought on by the pandemic, with many experiencing social isolation, anxiety, and fears around their future.’
Speaking to Sky News, Dr Duncan Astle, programme leader of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University agrees that the impact on mental health in 2021 is likely to be different to what was experienced last year. He said, “A winter lockdown, in which there are fewer hours of daylight and when it is more difficult to engage in outside activities like exercise, may make a winter lockdown more impactful for mental health, relative to a spring lockdown. The feeling of uncertainty is also a common symptom in those who experience poor mental wellbeing.”
Despite the darker days and colder weather, it is important to continue to go out for some fresh air and exercise. Even if this is just a brief walk around the block, it is surprising how much of a difference this can make to a cloudy head. In addition, despite the desire to stay warm and cosy in your pjs, it’s really important to make sure you get dressed every day, even if you aren’t planning to go out anywhere. This can help you to feel more motivated to get through the day’s tasks and will also help you to unwind at the end of the day when you return to the comfort of a warm bath and some cosy bedtime clothing.
Ultimately the next few months are likely to be the most difficult we’ve faced so far, but it is worth focusing on the positives. All the signs suggest that this should be the last time we need to live under such strict restrictions, as once the vaccination program has taken effect the number of infections will start to fall quite dramatically. The days are also getting longer as we move towards spring, which means that we will have increasing opportunities to get out and enjoy the milder weather in just a few weeks time. As always, if you are struggling it is important that you reach out for help, whether that is to friends and family, or to a mental health charity or helpline.