It’s December – the month we traditionally begin winding down, reflecting and looking ahead to the next year. But how do you even begin processing a year that threw our lives into chaos when we’re not even out the other side yet? Jobs have been cut, normality abandoned, and, for the unluckiest among us, family members and loved ones have been lost. We were all forced to adapt our lives at breakneck speed all while reckoning with our own mortality.
It’s not exactly the ideal environment for moving on and planning the future, but that’s exactly what we’ve got to do now – so VICE UK asked a bunch of mental health experts about the best way to take stock of the hellscape that was 2020.
According to spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and traditional psychotherapist Professor Brett Kahr, it’s critical to acknowledge that we’re living through something deeply harrowing. “The whole planet has been traumatised by this horrific pandemic,” he tells VICE. “We’re experiencing something that we could legitimately call global psychological trauma.”
From his work with patients during the pandemic, Kahr believes that every single person he’s seen this year has suffered tremendously: “People who were already suffering with significant psychological distress are now on average far more distressed than ever before, and those who were in a reasonably robust state before the pandemic have had that sense of psychological robustness challenged in many ways.”
These are observations that Kadra Abdinasir from the Centre for Mental Health, a charity specialising in mental health policy and research, echoes. While it’s still too early on to definitively identify what the mental health impact of the pandemic has been, she notes that direct and indirect consequences that have emerged.
“In terms of direct impact, we’ve seen a rise in social isolation and loneliness, bereavement and grief, anxiety and fear around the virus itself which has in turn fuelled germaphobia in some cases, and the exacerbation of mental health difficulties for people who already had mental health problems, particularly if they’ve not been able to access medication and treatment,” she says. Indirectly, she adds, we’re already seeing the influences of COVID in the increase in domestic violence, the impact of racial trauma, skyrocketing calls to helplines and deep economic uncertainty.
For the founder of Lafiya Health and psychological wellbeing and CBT therapist Shomi Williams, moving on from this year has to begin with accepting where we are at the moment. “A lot of us are very focused on thinking ‘when the pandemic is over, I’m going to do xyz’ without grounding it in the reality of the situation,” she says. “Being idealistic, future-oriented and writing the year off only delays a lot of the worries you’re having. Instead of being dismissive and making plans for when it’s over, instead, think about what you can do right now and how you can make use of your time in this moment.”
Abdinasar adds: “It’s important to think about how we can reconnect with ourselves and, in particular, nature. Even though we are in a pandemic, we can still find ways to enjoy the outdoors which is so critical for well-being. Also, as we enter the new year, it’s worth thinking about your boundaries, particularly around social media and media consumption.”
While many of us have been checking in on our loved ones to maintain a support system, Kahr emphasises that, if it’s a feasible option, professional mental health support is something that people should look into as we head into the new year. “One of the real characteristics of psychotherapy is that the psychotherapist never burdens the patient with their own private life. It’s an hour where the conversation is focused entirely on the patient, which really does make a difference as their problems are not minimised or maligned – they really do have the full attention.”
All three experts repeatedly touched on distress of living through the year and acknowledging it in all its various forms. Like any other form of trauma – physical, emotional or psychological – we have to recognise that it’s there - we can’t ignore it in the hopes it will disappear. The lasting impact of COVID cannot be glossed over; unfortunately, this isn’t one where we can just keep it moving.
Abdinasar and the Centre for Mental Health are advocating for a trauma-informed recovery from everything 2020 brought. “That means all institutions considering the ways that they acknowledge and deal with trauma so, for example, it’s positive that we’ve got this news about a vaccine but that doesn’t mean that everyone now needs to go back to the office next year,” she tells VICE UK. “We would want to see a staggered plan around how people can reintegrate back into ‘normality’ in a way that recognises the trauma we’ve collectively been through.”