So here we are - the UK lockdown has been going on for what feels like forever, and you've either settled into some sort of uneasy routine or you're perpetually sleepless and aimless at the moment. Here's a blog post on what I hope for the next few months, as we adjust to our "new normal."
First - let's be clear. There is nothing "normal" about this situation. We're in a global pandemic, lives are being lost every day, it's fine to feel scared and stressed and angry and hopeful and everything else that you're feeling right now. But we've got to acknowledge that it's unlikely that we're going back to the way things were before, certainly not soon. Being at a concert with thousands of other people suddenly seems aspirational, ridiculous, terrifying. Being inside a room with even three other people might seem to be too far away to contemplate. But all is not lost.
I know you've seen some of the amazing stuff that's been happening in the wake of the lockdown, you don't need me to repeat any of it specifically. There have been some really lovely expressions of care and understanding, and it's probably true that a lot of the things that happen are things we're not even aware of. When a story is picked up by the news or on social media it's nice, but one thing I really hope we take forwards into our "new normal" is the kindness and compassion that we know we're capable of. There's really no reason not to, and it genuinely makes the world a better place to live in. Why not offer to get a friend's food shopping whilst they're at home with their children? What's wrong with posting a hand-written letter to a friend you don't see as much nowadays? These are the things that will sustain us, the kind acts that make us all feel just that little bit less alone.
Losing the fear
For every kind act that has happened during lockdown, there have also been acts motivated by fear or unkindness. We seem to have an odd mentality in the UK whereby we think it's okay for us personally to "break the rules," but we also want swift punishment for those who we perceive to be breaking the rules, even if there's very little evidence to suggest that they are. This weird fear that someone might "get away with" something that they're not supposed to (going on a second walk, talking to a neighbour over a gate) is something that I hope we lose going forwards. If the worst thing that happens is that someone gets more than they might actually need of something (more exercise, slightly more fresh air, more connection, more kindness) then that really isn't a bad thing. Instead of feeling aggrieved, maybe we could look for ways to make our own lives that little bit better, or even show some kindness to others as well? I promise you, it will make you feel better than being bitter.
(There is obviously a caveat about people who are putting others in danger, but this is likely to be rare and honestly, don't people have other things to worry about at this point in time rather than watching their neighbours obsessively for any sign of perceived transgression? Come on now.)
Mental health support
Whilst there have been a number of conversations happening online as to whether psychologists are downplaying the needs of people with mental health difficulties, or whether we're actually scaremongering by suggesting that more people might need support than other people are anticipating post-lockdown, there are a few things to remember. Mental health support was necessary prior to the lockdown. And there wasn't enough of it to go around, certainly not in the UK. Long waiting lists are likely to get even longer, distress is likely to increase (it's bad enough being away from your family and friends and your normal routine when you're feeling mentally stable, imagine what it's like when you depend on those things to stay on an even keel), and we're going to require vast amounts of funding and support for the people who need it most.
Physical health support
As with any virus, with COVID-19 there is a real risk of post-viral fatigue for many people. This is likely to develop into something like ME/CFS in a percentage of people. Not to mention the people who have been intubated on ICU for weeks on end, needing help to walk and talk and get back to their lives again. Mental health support is really important, but physical health support for these difficulties needs to not be forgotten. There's a poor track record in physical health services of dismissing fatigue-type difficulties as "psychosomatic" or "exaggerated" somehow, and whilst we're getting better (we do have ME/CFS services in some parts of the country, rather than just pretending that it doesn't exist), we're going to need to be careful not to psychologize physical difficulties just because we don't fully understand why the body is doing what it's doing, or just because we can't immediately fix it. Psychology is going to be a core part of post-COVID-19 healthcare, but let's not send everyone to a counsellor just because they're struggling to adjust without also adding in physiotherapist, OT, pharmacological and medical support, amongst other things.
This is the new normal
I'm sorry to say it, but we can't go back to the way things were. People often long to do this - back to our childhoods, to any time that we thought life was better or simpler, to a time when we didn't have the pain and the experience and the burdens that we now have. But we can't do that, and we can't go back this time either. The world has been irrevocably shaped by COVID-19 - in some ways for the better (people who were told that working from home was impossible are now able to do that very thing), and in lots of ways for the worse. All we can do is move forwards, into whatever is waiting for us there, and deal with the uncertainty we feel in doing so. How you move forwards, is up to you.
I hope everyone is staying safe, and I'll try to post more blogs as often as I can. Look after each other.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects