By Jane Byrne
February 29th 2020 marked the first confirmed case of Coronavirus in Ireland. With the pandemic nearly at the two year mark, mental health has plummeted to record lows.
Unprecedented challenges such as working from home, health and safety concerns, nationwide lockdowns, financial stress and the loss of loved ones have caused mental health to decline at a rapid rate. Many argued that services were inadequate even before the pandemic and concerns of a mental health crisis are rising with some even dubbing it a ‘second pandemic.’
With new restrictions being announced daily, limits on hospitality reintroduced and work from home mandates being encouraged, mental health will continue to decline.
The Central Statistics Office began conducting surveys in April 2020 which included the mental well-being of respondents. ‘The Social Impact of Covid-19’ surveys asked people a variety of questions over four different periods of the pandemic. Topics asked included, general mood, feelings of loneliness, government compliance, easing of restrictions, financial situation and the future of the pandemic.
Statistician and author Claire Burke notes, “The first Social Impact of COVID-19 survey was undertaken in April 2020 with the purpose of measuring the impact COVID-19 was having on Irish society and how it was impacting different people in different ways.”
The surveys were conducted at significant points throughout the pandemic. They began in April 2020, when Irish society first endured the impacts of COVID-19. The second survey was in August 2020 when the public were living under Level 2 restrictions. Again, in November 2020 when the people of Ireland were living under Level 5 restrictions with the expectation of returning to some form of normality and finally to February 2021, during the third lockdown.
There was no more surveys conducted after this time. This was due to the vaccine rollout and the hope that Ireland had gotten over the worst of the pandemic and resource issues.
The survey asked people to rate their overall life satisfaction at that current time. As the pandemic continued, more people began rating their life satisfaction as “low” all or most of the time. The only time an increase in life satisfaction occurred was in August, notably when the public were living under Level 2 restrictions which included ease of travel restrictions and good weather.
Data on overall life satisfaction and more can be found here:
At every single interval, female recipients were more likely to identify as feeling depressed or down all or most of the time and admitting to having a lower overall satisfaction with life. Female respondents were also more likely to report being extremely concerned about their own health, somebody else’s health and maintaining social ties than male respondents.
Women aged between 18-34 were most likely to express feelings of loneliness in every interval. This was followed by men in the same category. Whereas people aged 70+ were least likely to report feeling lonely. This is surprising as over 75s were ‘cocooning’ under Government restrictions and were the least likely to be mixing with friends and family or working during these four intervals.
Mental Health Ireland CEO, Martin Rogan discusses the impact the pandemic has had on people.
“Anxiety in the face of an uncertain, unfamiliar threat is a perfectly healthy response, designed to keep us all safe and alert to risk. However, it is not possible for an individual or indeed a community to maintain this level of hyper-vigilance over a protracted time period and this can have a depleting and exhausting effect. Over time this can impact mood and a sense of purpose and can reduce our sense of self-efficacy, self-agency, confidence and hope.”
This has translated to more people relying on mental health services. “We have seen our online traffic double over the past year and nine months. When the protective Public Health Measures were introduced, isolation and loneliness came to the fore. Other providers have reported to us a rise in Domestic Violence,” explains Rogan.
This is mirrored in Spectrum Health’s data. The counselling company recorded that over 75% of their pre-existing in person clients moved to their digital services when the pandemic started. Furthermore, over 90% of clients continued with video or phone counselling for more than three sessions.
The pandemic has also brought mental health difficulties to people who otherwise would have never suffered. “Taking away hobbies such as sport caused stress and impinged on the person’s sense of wellbeing and identity. This was an unfamiliar experience for them and many were unsure how to address this new experience or where they could seek support”, Rogan says.
He continues, “Women are more likely to seek help from friends and family and our society encourages and allows for this, until recently, men were expected to simply ‘get on with it’, be self-reliant and macho and to remain silent and stoic. These stereotypes are hardwired into our social expectations and have profound effects on how people understand and recognise distress in themselves and others.”
Experts predicted mental health in Ireland would improve overall with the vaccine rollout as life would be able to continue as normal. However, with cases as high as they were pre vaccine, the issue has only been exacerbated.
Counselling psychologist Dr Martha Whelan reflects on how the pandemic has affected mental health for her practise.
“Since September of this year I have nearly doubled my clientele. A lot of the same issues are arising – depression, anxiety, worry, loneliness and hopelessness.”
She explains that a lot of her patients are fearful over case numbers and loosing that sense of normality again.
“If the CSO were to conduct more well-being surveys I’m sure they would find the same outcomes of people who are increasingly worried, stressed and lonely.”
Dr Whelan’s advice is clear. “Mind yourself by doing something you like, whether that be getting out for a walk a bit earlier for some sunlight or meeting friends, it is important to stay connected to people and get outside when possible.”
The surveys shone a light on the drastic effect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on people over the last 20 months. Mental health Ireland has set up a support page on their website which can be found here: https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/get-support/covid19/.
Alternatively you can call Pieta House 1800 247247 or text “HELP” to 51444, Contact Aware at 1800 80 4848 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the Samaritans at 116123 or email@example.com. You can also text “HELLO” to 50808.