WORLD Mental Health Week 2020 runs from October 10th to 17th and it provides an opportunity to focus on the mental wellbeing of the nation as a whole, given all that people have gone through, especially since Covid-19 took hold last spring and turned the lives of most of us – young and old – upside down. The worrying uncertainty that the pandemic brought put extra pressure on our health services and, sadly, one of the areas that suffered most was their perennial poor relation, mental health.
A paper about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, compiled by the Mental Health Commission and published in late September, confirmed this and chief executive John Farrelly pulled no punches when he declared: ‘The cold, hard truth is that people with serious mental illness are reliant on a fragile mental health service.’ This is quite worrying when one considers that the pandemic has a long way to go yet and we are facing into the winter months, during which any new lockdown would be a lot more challenging for people generally.
The Mental Health Commission paper gives due credit to the hard-working staff of the mental health services, which it oversees, who operate on a critical frontline of their own: ‘It is only fair and proper that we note that their thoroughness, compassion and, indeed, bravery, ultimately saved many lives,’ adding that our society owes our health staff and management a huge debt of gratitude. The independent statutory body outlines its concerns about inconsistencies in the testing regime in the sector and called for these to be addressed, and for improvements in inappropriately-designed mental health facilities to make them fit for purpose so that they are not contributing to the spread of the virus.
Our mental health services are not confined to institutions and there are many professionals engaging with people in the community who need someone to reach out to and help them. Many who were struggling before the pandemic came along had their all-important routines interrupted and their fears exacerbated by its arrival as lockdown prevented people from meeting and led to isolation, especially in rural areas, financial worries – whether real or imagined– and even boredom, all compounded by the relentless uncertainty that comes with our current situation.
When the first restrictions were imposed in March, the evenings were getting longer and the weather obliged too, mitigating some of their effects in that people could at least get out and about, even if it was only within 2km of their homes. Now, with winter on the way, bringing longer nights, less daylight and poorer weather, people will be more confined to their homes and have less opportunity for exercise and fresh air; it will be difficult for some working from home and even moreso for those in the community whose mental health has already been affected by confinement and isolation.
Local mental health organisations and workers, such as 49 North Street in Skibbereen – which provides an oasis of empathy and calm – and the Wellbeing Network West Cork, have been staging the West Cork Feel Good Festival since the start of October in order to promote and celebrate community wellbeing, while linking with many ongoing resources across West Cork to support health and wellbeing. It is all about community, connection, engagement, slowing down, having fun and feeling good, and is part of the wider 2nd Cork Mental Health and Wellbeing Festival, organised by the HSE’s Cork Kerry Community Healthcare and partners
Such initiatives are vital in highlighting the state of our mental health as a whole and for letting people know that there are so many among us who need some positivity brought into their lives. Some people probably have enough trouble coping themselves that they would find it difficult to create the time to help others in a similar situation, so it is vital that the diversity of local services supporting mental health and wellbeing across the city and county is showcased by such wellbeing events.
On a more basic level, they provide a valuable opportunity to take some time to learn, talk, reflect, and engage with others around the topic of mental health and wellbeing. People who are feeling down should not be ashamed or afraid to talk to someone about it, as there is plenty of help available; suffering in silence is only going to add to their problems.
Equally, everybody should keep an eye on how family and friends are coping with all the uncertainty that the pandemic continues to bring and be prepared to provide a patient and listening ear if necessary. Check up on older neighbours in particular, especially those who are afraid to go out, and see how they are doing, and be cognisant that younger people are facing into an uncharted future and may be fearing the unknown.
It is so important to simply be there for people.