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Opinion: We must mind our mental health as Level 5 brings a forced introspection

Author and advocate Cathal O’Reilly has struggled with his own mental health in the past. He shares his thoughts on Level 5 and how to handle it.

Cathal O'Reilly

A NEW SURVEY released on World Mental Health Day showed that one in two people feel their mental health has been affected as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lockdown restrictions, lack of social interaction and economic uncertainty are all impacting people’s mental health and access to care which comes as no surprise.

With Level 5 restrictions now on the horizon from tomorrow, many people are deeply concerned about the mental health fallout from the pandemic both from a personal level and for the country as a whole.

We must acknowledge that mental health issues were in a state of crisis in Ireland long before the pandemic. People and their families have been desperately crying out for help for sufficient access to adequate services as part of our healthcare system.

Overcrowding in psychiatric hospitals has lead to some patients to sleeping on the floors in the past. People are being put on waiting lists with no communication for months and unfortunately, some people, when they ask for help, are being turned away by the services if the threat is not deemed urgent enough for hospitalisation.

So, it is unfortunate that it has taken a global health crisis for mental health to be treated with a sense of urgency. 

Ever-growing struggles

We have all had experience with mental health challenges whether personally or through a friend, family member or loved one. I have experienced depression and anxiety and it is always something I need to manage.

I now understand the importance of having a social outlet but I distinctly remember isolating myself from everyone during my college days which is well over ten years ago now. It was a horrible time I never want to experience again.

I was not aware of the detrimental impact of spending days in my college accommodation, alone, could have on my mental health. I did not have any history of mental health issues to that point, however, the self-isolating element definitely contributed to my difficulties that occurred as a result. 

For people who have experienced mental health issues in the past, the pandemic continues to be an extremely uncertain and stressful time. In some cases, it may lead to the relapse of an acute condition which can sometimes lead to hospital admission, but at the very least Covid-19, unsurprisingly, is causing an acute level of worry.

For those who have not experienced mental health difficulty in the past, it may be the first time that you feel your mental health is threatened. It is these people who may be facing a crisis point in their lives.

Forced introspection

Isolation forces us to look within, which is not always easy, and this may bring up old feelings and perhaps even trauma that has never been fully dealt with. You may find yourself recounting experiences and delving further into thoughts about, for example, how you lost touch with that friend or perhaps a difficult experience to process. The pandemic is forcing a time of introspection on us all. 

In the past, where we may have kept ourselves busy, it is impossible to do so with the restrictions. Introspection can be very difficult and our modern lifestyles are not built for long periods of reflection on our lives. It can cause severe feelings of loneliness and can, in my experience, lead to depression.

It is imperative that we treat mental health issues in the early stages. This means if you are not feeling yourself or if you are concerned for a family member, friend or loved one, you should make contact and talk amongst your family or with a trusted friend at the very least.

It is often the message that we hear around mental health however as hard as it may be, finding the courage to start to speak about how you are feeling at the early stages really is the best policy. 

Although the stigma around mental health exists at all levels, there is nothing unusual about going to your doctor to express how you may be feeling. At the end of the day, if we are feeling physically sick, perhaps a vomiting bug or a chest infection, we would be making an appointment with your doctor immediately.

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The same applies to your mental health. It takes tremendous courage to speak about how you are feeling but like anything else, the first step is the most difficult. After that, it really does get easier. 

Careful of social media

I would be extremely reluctant to take mental health ‘advice’ from social media platforms on how to negotiate your mental health during Level 5 or any other lockdown measures. We will be exposed to certain types of messaging in relation to mental health which will be chaotic and much of it will not inspire much hope.

Many people are in a state of panic and will flock to social media to vent their frustrations. I would be selective in what I consume, especially during this phase. 

I find it challenging to offer one form of advice for those who may be experiencing mental health difficulty today as a result of Level 5 restrictions because we have never dealt with this before.

One could suggest reading a book, doing yoga, taking exercise and finding downtime. I really don’t believe there is a go-to list for self-care during this, however, I do believe that you need to find what works for you and as best you can, you need to try and adapt.

If you are a social person, make sure to connect with your friends and family. Try and spend time doing what you enjoy doing. Many people are used to being busy and the question – ‘What do I enjoy’ – may cause a severe level of discomfort because you were so busy working or managing family life that you may have lost what you enjoy doing. I would suggest, perhaps, to use this time to rediscover what you value and enjoy in life. 

Cathal O’Reilly is an advocate for mental health and trainee psychotherapist. He has written several books about mental health. Find him online or on Twitter.

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Cathal O'Reilly

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