Seeking mental health support in the middle of a global pandemic can be pretty confusing. From making an appointment with your GP to accessing online therapy, here’s everything you need to know.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works for people across the world. The routines and schedules we previously lived our lives by have gone out the window, replaced by lockdown regulations and widespread uncertainty.
It’s no surprise, then, that so many of us are struggling with high levels of anxiety and stress as a result of the pandemic. According to the most recent survey from the Office of National Statistics, 47% of British people are dealing with “high levels” of anxiety – with four in five saying they’re worried about the effect the virus is having on their life.
Of course, it’s only natural to feel worried, anxious or even angry in response to the current situation – feeling this way is not a sign of a mental health condition, but a completely normal response to an extraordinary situation. But if these feelings begin to become overwhelming, or if you feel yourself deteriorating, you may want to seek professional help.
The problem? It’s not always easy working out how – and when – you should reach out for support, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.
For example, you might think that some NHS services are closed, too busy to help or only able to treat emergency cases, but this just isn’t true. On top of that, there’s also plenty of mental health charities who can help you to find confidential online support.
With this in mind, we asked the experts working in the NHS and mental health charity Mind, everything you need to know about seeking mental health support during lockdown – if you’re wondering whether it’s still OK to visit a GP, how you can find an online therapist or how to know when you need extra help, we’ve got you covered.
What online support is available if I’m struggling with my mental health?
There are plenty of great online resources available if you’re struggling with your mental health, most of which are free and accessible without an appointment.
The NHS Every Mind Matters website is a great place to start if you’re looking for some advice on how to handle your mental health at home. Alongside a series of informative pages on anxiety, low mood, stress and sleep, they even have a quick quiz which can provide you with a personalised wellbeing plan (called a Mind Plan), which will give you a series of self-care activities and resources to help you stay on top of your mental health.
Outside of the NHS, mental health charities like Mind can provide additional information on how to manage your mental health at home, as well as pointing you towards additional resources and organisations that might be able to help.
“At this time when we are being asked to physically distance from other people, online communities and social media offer people a chance to connect and give each other support,” explains Rosie Weatherley, Information Content Manager at Mind.
“For some people, they actually find it easier to communicate online rather than in person or over the phone. Being online can also help some of us talk more honestly about how we are feeling and connect with others, especially if we are going through a difficult time.”
Mind’s Elefriends online support community could be a great place to start if you’re struggling with your mental health and are finding it hard to talk about it – it’s a safe place to listen, share and be heard. Mind also has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday – Friday).
If you or someone you love needs to talk, you can also call The Samaritans on 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.
On top of this, there are a number of wellbeing apps and organisations offering free wellbeing and self-care resources during the coronavirus outbreak.
Can I see a GP for mental health support during the coronavirus lockdown?
Yes. You should always check the advice at your own GP surgery for their procedures during this time, but GP surgeries are still open (and doing many of their appointments over the phone or online), so it’s OK to seek support for any difficulties you might be facing at the moment.
“Lots of the feelings we’re having at the moment – whether we’re feeling frustrated or anxious or scared or lonely, these are all normal feelings considering this weird, extraordinary situation we’re all in. However, there does come a point where that stops just being a normal, everyday experience and actually starts becoming something that’s impacting on your life,” explains NHS psychiatrist Max Pemberton.
“I’m really concerned about the statistics that show people are significantly holding back from getting treatment, either because they think everything’s closed – which it’s not – or because they assume they’re going to have to go in and they’re worried about catching Covid-19. I think it would be a tragedy if there were patients sat at home who were really struggling, and they weren’t reaching out and getting help because they thought we weren’t available to help them or they were worried about somehow catching Covid-19.”
“I would really urge people to reach out if they are worried about themselves or their loved ones’ mental health.”
The first point of call, Pemberton explains, is your GP. During the coronavirus crisis, GP surgeries have been sorted into “hot” or “cold” practices; hot practices deal with purely coronavirus-related problems, whereas cold ones deal with everything else. If you call up your GP practice and it’s not treating “normal” patients, you may end up not seeing your “usual” doctor – but you will be allowed to talk to another doctor from a different practice.
After this, Pemberton advises, you’ll need to explain what your concerns are, and your GP may refer you to your local mental health team or crisis team if you need an urgent assessment.
Can I still go to A&E in a mental health emergency?
Emergency departments across the country are still open and able to treat patients in all kind of emergency situations, so it’s important to seek help immediately if you feel unable to cope or keep yourself safe.
“100% go to A&E in a mental health emergency,” Pemberton says. “Either call an ambulance, or if you’re able to or have the facilities to go yourself, every hospital in the country 24 hours a day has an on call dedicated team of mental health professionals and they will be able to talk to you and assess you.
“If you feel unsafe, go to A&E.”
How do I know when to seek extra support for my mental health?
Lots of people are experiencing mental health problems for the first time during the coronavirus crisis due to a number of factors including stress, bereavement or isolation. So how can you tell when to seek the support of a mental health professional?
“A lot of the feelings we’re experiencing at the moment are normal, and it’s important to not medicalise feelings of distress – but it’s a difficult line to know where to draw,” Pemberton explains.
“If you have tried the usual kinds of strategies – the things that are on the Every Mind Matters website, for example – and they are not working, then that’s an indication that this isn’t something you can just kind of tweak or fill around the edges. That, actually, this is something quite profound and serious.
“If you’ve tried self-help, and it’s not working, then you’re going to need help from somebody else.”
Pemberton also recommends listening to the concerns and worries of the people around us. If, for example, someone lets you know they’re concerned about how you’re coping, this could be a sign you need to think about what’s going on and seek help if necessary.
What if I need to get medication for my mental health during lockdown?
You should continue to take your medication as prescribed by your doctor during lockdown unless you’ve spoken to them first.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends giving your doctor or pharmacist plenty of notice to prepare your prescription as services may take a bit longer than usual.
Can I access therapy online?
Yes – most therapists are now conducting sessions online (to find out what an online session is like, you can read one writer’s experience here).
“Many therapists are also adapting to the current situation by offering sessions through the telephone or by video,” explains Rosie Weatherley, Information Content Manager at Mind. “We recommend people find a therapist through a professional register like the British Association of Therapists and Counsellors (BACP).
“However, while online therapy can be beneficial for some people, it’s important it doesn’t become a substitute for face-to-face therapy delivered by a qualified practitioner in the long run.
“For some, having a therapist they see in person will be really crucial to building a trusting relationship and helping them manage their mental health. These face-to-face services will be available again once the lockdown is over, and the digital appointment can offer an alternative in the meantime.”