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Mental health and the pandemic: a year in our lives

This year we took part in our city’s brilliant Festival of Debate, and it was good! We ran an event looking at how the pandemic has shaped us, changed us, and brought us to where we are on this cold May day.

Though the participatory online workshop ended up being smaller than we expected, that wasn’t a bad thing. Around 15 of us shared a small, warm, cosy space where we talked and processed one of the biggest things we’ve all been through.

There’s no way we can do justice to the diversity of mental health experiences in this pandemic (or even to the diversity of conversation at the event itself). But we’ve picked some snapshots from our chats that stood out to us, made us laugh and helped us understand our reality better.

Before

We moulded the event around the year, starting right at the beginning: where were we all at when the pandemic hit? People talked about travel plans (remember travel?!), volunteering roles which have now disappeared, and day to day lives which once felt very permanent, now gone.

One of the strangest memories was how unreal covid – now such a huge part of our lives – had once seemed. We reminisced about that moment just before things got serious, when people wearing masks seemed almost silly. Most of us had never lived through a crisis; we couldn’t believe what was coming our way.

The early days

Of course, some of us have lived through crises: including serious mental illness. In those early months of the pandemic, those of us who’ve been through mental health crises were sometimes the most resilient. We’d learnt the coping mechanisms to deal with huge life upheaval, or we had already adapted to high levels of anxiety. And this gave us the opportunity to help others, to share the knowledge with friends and family suffering for the first time.

While there was space to learn and reflect during this time, it was also a time of complete chaos, in the government as well as key services. People shared some really painful memories. One person with a hearing impairment talked about being unable to communicate with paramedics wearing masks as a loved one was rushed into hospital. Another participant talked about the disarray of mental health services: as things got worse over time there was very little help or support available.

Adjusting

As we got our heads around this ‘new normal’ we were living in, we found our worlds had shrunk. We talked about everything in the pandemic having two sides to it: good and bad. Our world had shrunk, but we also found space there to think more about what we wanted, for ourselves. We couldn’t do many of the things we’d usually do to look after our mental health, but as we accepted this we found new things. And it was becoming more and more okay to talk about how we were really feeling.

Many of us were re-evaluating, either using the change as an opportunity to escape what we didn’t need any more, or being pushed to pivot by new circumstances. Those of us who had planned their home lives around going into university, going into offices, going to the pub, suddenly found ourselves at home alone. For others, shared spaces suddenly felt much smaller. As Christmas trundled quietly by, rolling into spring, things were hard.

Into the future

It goes without saying (yet still needs repeating) that the virus is highlighting injustices, and worsening them too. Things may be opening up, but this pandemic is by no means over.

We talked about the future, what we learned and what we want to take with us: compassion, activism, self-acceptance. And the transparency we’re learning – that we can talk about how we feel, and admit that things aren’t okay.

We would love for you to share your stories of how the pandemic has affected your mental health – please get in touch if you have a story to share (we can also support you in telling it)

A big thank you to Festival of Debate. You can still donate to support their wonderful work. Thank you to the lovely Adelaide Chibanda who facilitated the event so beautifully.

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