How to cope with poor mental health during lockdown
Mental health can be a delicate thing at the best of times. In fact, according to the charity Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.
Since lockdown began, you can bet your bottom dollar that the number of people experiencing stress, anxiety and isolation will have risen. And for the one in six people who live with a common mental health problem like depression, social distancing will have taken its toll too.
As a mental health advocate, Ellen has dedicated much of her career to writing about her own battles with depression and OCD as well as highlighting the mental health journeys of others.
We spoke to Ellen about what she’s learnt from hosting Mentally Yours and what we can do to manage our own mental health during lockdown.
How did you come up with the idea to do Mentally Yours?
I started talking openly about my mental health back in 2017. I literally wrote an article for metro.co.uk and that was the first time I had really spoken about my depression and OCD with anyone I knew – I sent the link to my family because I was too nervous to actually chat about it.
I started a series called Getting Better and every week I would get so many messages from people thanking me for talking so openly – so I realised people wanted more. But I felt like I’d exhausted my own experience and wanted to share other people’s stories. That’s where the idea for Mentally Yours came from; we launched in 2017 and have been going ever since, sharing other people’s lived experience of mental illness as well as experts advice on mental health.
What have you learnt about mental health and managing crises from doing the podcast?
The main thing I’ve learned is that if you think you’re alone, you’re really, really not. So many times we’ve been chatting to a guest and they’ve said something that exactly echoes something I’ve thought and that I’ve been scared to admit.
Also, of course, the power of talking and asking for help when you need it. Everyone we’ve spoken to has had that moment of finally asking for help and it’s such a life-changing thing. The relief of finally admitting you’re not okay is huge.
What are the unique mental health challenges that lockdown presents, and what symptoms can be further exacerbated by isolation?
First off, any sort of stress can bring up symptoms that have been under the surface for a while. Personally when I’m stressed, my OCD symptoms will pop back up and I’ll notice that need to check, double-check, triple check until I’ve gone and checked the door is locked 17 times. The pandemic is worrying and scary – that in itself can bring out existing mental health issues.
You’ve also got loneliness and the challenge that comes with being alone. It’s so easy to shut down and not do your usual coping methods – therapy, talking to friends, going for a run etc – when you don’t have anyone to see that you’re not doing great.
Then there’s the boredom, which again lets symptoms that might have laid low bubble up again and raises the temptation to do unhealthy coping methods, such as drinking, doing drugs, skin-picking, or binge-eating.
Lots of people will be feeling pretty shoddy right now. How can you tell if you’re living with a mental health condition or just a normal response to a very stressful situation?
Honestly, I don’t think people should get too hung up on whether they meet the exact definition of a mental illness. If you’re feeling awful and you’re struggling to cope, you deserve help.
The moment you’re feeling completely overwhelmed and usual things that make you feel better aren’t working, it’s time to take action. Call your GP for a phone appointment, get in touch with a counsellor that offers online sessions, and have a chat (over the phone, unless you live together) with someone who can help to soothe your mind and help out however they can.
Remember that your feelings are valid and there’s no right way to feel right now. We’re in a situation that we’ve never experienced before! It’s weird and scary!
Managing depression and anxiety can be difficult at the best of times – what kind of things do you do to keep hold of your mental health and what are your non-negotiables when you’re going through a bad patch?
Number one thing: continue treatment – keep taking your meds and chat with your therapist to see if you can do video sessions.
Make sure you maintain a routine – it helps make things feel a bit more normal. Wake up at the same time each day, get out of bed and do things, and go to sleep at the same time. Sleep is hugely important for me. The second my sleep is disrupted all my symptoms come rushing back.
All your usual self-care stuff is vital too. Food sounds like a small thing but it has a huge impact. Take the time to cook yourself something delicious that does your mind and body good. I’ve noticed that when I eat a load of rubbish I feel so much worse – I think because I’m not treating my body like it’s worthy of proper care.
Oh, and make time to do things that make you feel good. That routine thing I mentioned is important – if you’re working from home, have defined working hours. If you’re not working right now make a schedule for how you plan to spend your day. You need that structure. Within that, plan out activities you know soothe your mind, whether that’s reading a book, playing Sims, doing a puzzle, or just rewatching a TV series you’ve seen at least five times before (I’m doing all of these things).
Who should you reach out to if your mental health declines dramatically during this period?
The first port of call is your GP or therapist to see how you can arrange sessions. If you’re still working, it’s worth checking if your workplace offers an employee assistance programme that functions remotely.
And call Samaritans. There’s a common misconception that you need to be in immediate danger to give them a ring – that’s not the case. If you’re unable to cope, call them on 116 123 for a supportive and understanding chat.
How important is community in times of isolation for staving off mental health problems?
Communication and community is crucial during lockdown. If you’re in good health, it’s worth volunteering your services to people in need, whether that’s doing an older person’s shopping (and leaving it outside their door to maintain social distancing) or signing up to the NHS volunteer scheme. Lots of studies have shown that helping other people gives you a sense of purpose and improves mental wellbeing.
Schedule in chats with people in your life too – a Zoom quiz or a phone conversation does a world of good.
How has your own mental health been during this crisis?
It’s been so up and down. My sleep has been really disrupted – I take a long time to drift off because I’m worrying about the worst case scenario and the lack of physical activity means I’m not as tired at the end of the day.
I’ve noticed some unhealthy behaviours popping up – skin-picking especially, but I’ve been filling my time with things to distract my mind and keep my hands busy, like puzzles, Scrabble, reading books.
Weirdly though, I feel like my mental illness has made me prepared for this. I’ve spent so long panicking about everything that could happen that now a pandemic is happening, I’m pretty laid back about it. The worries are the same as normal but now there’s an actual crisis happening – but I know I can handle it.
What impact has being locked down with your partner had on your mental health?
I’m lucky because my partner and I have always worked and lived together, so we’re used to spending a *lot* of time together. It is strange though to no longer have our personal days – previously he had Saturdays to do whatever he wanted and I had Mondays. It’s not that either of us were doing anything super wild on those days, but just having the freedom to have some alone time was really key for both our mental wellbeing.
I’m making sure we still have alone time, even if we’re stuck in a pretty small flat – I’ll go through to the bedroom while he’s working in the living room or he’ll have a bath while I can hang out and do all my self-care bits.
You can listen and download Mentally Yours on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you normally get your podcasts.
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 9 April 2020
Next review: 9 April 2023