The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the mental health of people up and down the country. Over the last five months, a combination of social isolation, worry for friends and family and anxiety about the future has left many people struggling to cope. And even as lockdown eases, concerns about the recession and job security are only adding to the pressure many people are facing.
New statistics released this week have revealed the extent of the problem. According to the figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), twice as many adults are dealing with symptoms of depression now compared to last year – one in five adults have experienced depressive symptoms during the pandemic, compared with one in ten before.
The figures also revealed that women were one of the groups at a higher-risk of experiencing depression: people with a disability, those under the age of 40 and people who said they would struggle to meet an unexpected cost of £850 were the groups also most likely to deal with depressive symptoms during this time.
Although dealing with depressive symptoms does not equate to a diagnosis of depression, these latest figures demonstrate just how significant of an impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on our mental health – and shows why talking about our mental health and destigmatising conditions such as depression is so important.
To find out what it’s really like to deal with depression during lockdown, we spoke to four women about what they’ve experienced, and asked them to share the one thing they wished more people understood about depression. Here’s what they had to say.
“I have bouts of depression, but I mainly suffer from anxiety, which can be crippling. I experienced a lot of trauma growing up which I am still addressing and recovering from, and this can lead to periods of depression.
“During lockdown, my depression has been at its worst for a long time. The hardest part has been the transition periods into and out of lockdown, and dealing with the uncertainty of everything. I have also felt a lot of pressure to have the ‘perfect lockdown’ and keep my business running while managing my mental health, and it all got a little too much. I have had a few days where I struggled to get out of bed or had problems focusing and felt very alone.
“I have been having therapy during lockdown once a week to help me manage everything and clear my head, and it has been pivotal in managing my mental health, but I still have bad days.”
The one thing I wish people understood: “Depression isn’t just about not being able to get out of bed, or uncontrollable crying – it can also cause a lack of focus, extreme exhaustion, sickness and vision problems. At my worst, I physically can’t keep myself from falling asleep. It also has a negative effect on things that should be positive – for example, I’ve found myself overworking just to make me feel like I’m ‘good enough’. I have some of my hardest working days when I feel really down, just to try and counteract how I feel.
“Depression has many different layers to it – you can be fully functional one day, and curled up in a ball the next. It’s unpredictable.”
“I’ve dealt with depression before, but the depression I experienced during lockdown was completely different. I can tell I’m not in a good place when I become detatched from my social group and I start to shut people out. I see it in my face too, there’s a dullness to my skin. I also become a master procrastinator and focus on tasks that, while good in their own right, don’t help me in the long run.
“As the depression I experienced during lockdown was different from anything I’ve experienced before, I felt stuck and repeatedly questioned my relevance. It’s incredibly lonely to wonder whether you’re important or not. I didn’t feel like I wanted to harm myself and I didn’t have any suicidal thoughts, but I did feel like I wanted to disappear and escape.
“I was also given time to sit with the grief I felt about my mum’s passing in 2012 for the first time, which is something that I’d never really dealt with properly before.
“Being with my family, reconnecting to my childhood home, learning new kitchen skills, going for long walks and ensuring to laugh at least once a day helped me to get out of bed in the morning. I also joined a grief community to help me process how I’m feeling. There’s power in simple actions.”
The one thing I wish people understood: “Depression needs to be a more in-your-face conversation in our society – it’s getting better which is so positive, but depression needs to be shown more in popular culture and not in a super polished way, either.
“We also need to talk about how depression is not easily recognisable – I was able to get up, shower, put make up on, laugh and was motivated to exercise, but there was still a shift in my ‘normal’ behaviour and I still felt low.”
“I have had depression since graduating from my BA, when I was dealing with an abusive relationship and was struggling to find a job after my arts degree. My depression is triggered by anxiety and feeling trapped, but I’ve managed to keep it under control after going through therapy.
“At the beginning of lockdown, however, the majority of my coping mechanisms were thrown out the window: being locked down, alone, without my family (they live in Italy, which was the most affected country at the time), was the definition of feeling trapped.
“I had so many projects and hopes for 2020 but everything was suddenly put on hold, and I didn’t know when or if it would resume. When I woke up in the morning I felt like someone was squeezing my brain really hard and preventing me from seeing any brightness. In the evenings my eyes would leak endlessly and I’d just sit on the sofa scrolling on my phone and bingeing the news, hoping for answers that didn’t come.
“Teaching pole dancing online and practising it has been my lifeline, because only through dancing could I express what I was feeling, so much so that my style of dancing changed, becoming slower and more emotional.”
The one thing I wish people understood: “I think it’s important for people to understand that depression looks different on everyone. Sure, there are common traits, but each person displays them differently. If I appear super high functioning, that doesn’t mean I’m not depressed. Being able to ‘do things’ doesn’t mean recovery.”
“I’ve dealt with bouts of depression since my teenage years, but my most severe experience was with post-natal depression after the birth of my first son five years ago. Ironically, a lot of the triggers for this episode were similar to the experience of lockdown – social isolation, grieving my ‘old life’ and struggling with overwhelm of a big life change – but of course, I could manage it very differently back then.
“During lockdown I felt my depression much more suddenly and acutely, and with a bigger sense of overwhelm/doom than before. Previously, I almost wouldn’t recognise depressive episodes because there was no big trigger or event tipping me into it, just a slow grind of contributing factors. But with the lockdown and pandemic, I felt utterly overwhelmed and a lot more hopeless than before, and the depression came on very quickly in the first two or three weeks.
“I also haven’t had my biggest distraction and tool for depression – my work – because of the pandemic, and this has played a big role in my depression, too.
“Some of my symptoms have been the same – insomnia, appetite fluctuations, irritability and bad skin – but others have been more physical – more aches and pains in my body and more headaches.
“One positive to come out of this has been that the things I’ve tried for my depression previously (that didn’t used to work), have been more effective. Activities such as writing a list of things I’m grateful for every day, being kinder to myself, lowering my expectations and practicing affirmations have come much easier to me and have been really helpful. I’ve also been spending a lot of time looking after my growing collection of houseplants.”
The one thing I wish people understood: “Depression isn’t logical or linear, and it’s a life-long battle. There is no cure for depression – it’s always there, somewhere – and the lockdown has confirmed this for me. The positive from this, however, is that when I did feel depressed this time around, I was quicker to recognise it and take action to look after myself.
“I also wish people would understand the dangers of comparative suffering – even when people with depression tell themselves “oh, well, things could be worse!”. It helps no-one and can be a huge trigger for deeper depression. Our mental health is always vulnerable and every struggle is valid – especially in a pandemic.”
Dealing with depression
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and there is help available.
Emma Carrington, advice and information manager at Rethink Mental Illness explains: “Feeling low can be a natural reaction to sad or distressing events, but when that low feeling begins to go on for an extended period, you might be experiencing depression. Depression is a common mental illness that affects about one in ten people, but research has suggested more people have been experiencing depressive symptoms during the pandemic, with significant changes to our lives at work and at home, and more limited access to things which can support our mental health, such as socialising with friends and family.
“Depression affects everyone differently, but generally involves a low mood, a loss of energy, motivation, concentration, and feelings of worthlessness.
“If you feel that you might be depressed, you should try to see your GP as soon as you can as they will be able to discuss what kind of treatment options are available to you. Depending on your situation, this will typically involve a combination of talking therapies, where you discuss how you’re feeling with a therapist or in a group, and anti-depressants. The right type and balance of treatments will take time to establish, and your GP should help guide you through this process.
“You can also refer yourself to your local NHS talking therapy service without speaking to your GP. These services are called IAPT services. You can search online using the phrase ‘IAPT X’ where X is the place you live. You can also find support from speaking to your local NHS mental health helpline. These are available across the country. You can find details of your local helpline on the NHS directory.
“When you’re going through a tough time with your mental health it can be hard to open up, but that can encourage feelings of isolation. Talk to a friend or someone you trust about how you’re feeling. Take time to prioritise your wellbeing. Some people find that self-care is also an effective way to manage their symptoms. Neglecting to maintain a balanced diet or regular exercise can impact on your mental health, and it’s also helpful to try and stick to a good routine, going to bed and getting up at a similar time every day.”
For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.