Although it looks as if the COVID-19 lockdown is ending, it has taken a toll on many people's mental health. Being shut away from friends, family, and loved ones has put a huge strain on the nation.
The Mental Health Foundation has done a lot of research into how people are coping. In the UK, from data taken in the latter part of December, it was found that over half of the population had felt anxious or worried over the two-week sample period. Meanwhile, almost 25% of people had felt lonely over the same fortnight.
Mind has also researched how the pandemic has affected people. As someone who deals with unhealthy coping strategies myself, their research into how people are coping didn’t surprise me.
For instance, over half of the adults and young people asked were either over or undereating. Nearly a third use alcohol or illegal drugs (with this trend being more prolific in the 18-24s).
So, with it so obvious that many people are struggling to cope, just how can we support ourselves and our friends and family within this digital age?
1) Connect online with loved ones
There are many ways to connect with loved ones online, from Zoom to WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger.
Using these tools to help you connect with friends, even after lockdown, is a wonderful way to help people feel less alone. However, it's worth remembering that some people struggling with a mental health condition may not want to appear on camera.
I get around this by sending a text beforehand. If your friend still wants to call but doesn't want to use the camera, they can still use the audio functions. Best of all, you can still have your camera switched on, so, for them, it'll be like seeing you face-to-face.
Though technology has improved leaps and bounds over the last decade, and certainly over the last year, some people may be less keen to socialise online than others. Remember, when someone's mental health is low, it can be hard for them to message you back.
Please, don't be offended by silence! That message you sent may have meant the world, but they're too preoccupied to communicate right now.
Even if you don't hear back, drop them another message after a week or so. The fact you're thinking of your friend may be incredibly comforting during a difficult time.
2) Use and recommend apps that may help with mental health
As awareness around mental health is gathering momentum, several apps can help you manage your symptoms. For example:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] Apps
Some mental health apps use CBT techniques to help you manage daily symptoms of anxiety and depression. My favourite app encourages you to step back in difficult situations and think before taking action.
Though many CBT apps are available on smartphones and other devices, remember that an app will not replace professional therapy. If you think you could benefit from a course of CBT, please contact your doctor or healthcare provider.
Meditation isn't "just for hippies" anymore. Now scientists are recognising the many health benefits, and the app market has exploded.
There are different types of meditation apps, too. Some will recommend and guide you through gentle exercise. Others will help you de-stress through a combination of music and CBT. Some people even use meditation apps to help them fall asleep!
If you haven't tried meditation yet, an app might be the easiest, cheapest way to guide you and get you started.
Mood tracking apps
Experiencing several moods throughout the day is normal. However, if you find yourself feeling more anxious than grounded or sadder than usual, it may be a good idea to track your moods.
Many of these apps offer a straightforward way of mood tracking. Every few hours, these apps will encourage you to click on a face emoji that best describes your current mood. Just before your bedtime, they'll show you a report of how your perspective has changed from morning to afternoon to evening.
Suppose you're worried about rapidly changing moods. In that case, a log can help you explain your symptoms to a doctor or healthcare provider.
Many apps also offer a journaling function, which allows you to comment and write notes on your current mood.
Some game apps can be incredible when it comes to remaining calm and improving cognitive function. My other half recently got me into a gaming app that has no scores and no pressure. Instead, I can spend a few minutes sorting virtual laundry and practising meditative breathing. It's my go-to game for when I need some time to centre myself.
3) Suggest they switch offline (or go offline yourself)
Personally, I find that too much time on social media platforms can bring me down. That said, it can be tough to switch off.
If you have a friend who struggles with being overwhelmed by social media, then it might be time to gently suggest switching off for a while. Instead of social apps, remind your friend they can reach out to friends and family without Facebook or Twitter. I find that switching off for an hour or two and watching a feel-good film can bring up my mood. The constant bombardment of social media posts can be exhausting.
4. Use and recommend online support groups
Online support groups can be wonderful. I've learned a lot about myself and my mental health by simply reading and taking part in online support groups. Over time, people come up with unique techniques to help themselves, which can be shared.
There is an excellent resource on rethink.org that helps your find support groups in your area via postcode. I highly recommend you check it out.
However, it's worth noting that some groups will not be suitable for everyone. If a group makes you feel worse rather than better, then it's time to leave and try another one.
5) Direct your friend towards a helpline or their GP
There are a great many helplines out that help people in a time of need. For example, this brilliant resource from the NHS provides an A-Z of helplines in the UK grouped by category. For example, suppose you're struggling specifically with gambling. In that case, there is a category on the page dedicated to the best helplines for your issue.
Some of the NHS-listed helplines offer 24-hour support, while others provide online chat or text messaging for those who don't like speaking over the phone. It is worth checking out the websites of each service to see which best suits your needs.
If the helplines aren't enough, and you need more help, your local GP or self-referral service is the best point of call.
While we still haven't returned to "normal", and times may still be difficult for many, the new digital age means we can reach out to friends and family without meeting face-to-face. There are also more self-care apps and resources than ever. The ones I've included in this post are just the tip of the iceberg. However, I hope some of them will give you new ideas.
For those helping friends or family with their mental health, remember to prioritise yours. Never feel like you're asking for "too much" support. Even with those you love and cherish, you need to come first for your own wellbeing.
NPS-IE-NP-00316 August 2021