The day after Halloween last year, I was hungover and still covered in fake blood after a night of violently whipping my hair around to Kim Petras in a club. This year, I was on my bedroom floor, phone clutched to one ear, explaining to someone I’ve never met how the isolation caused by the pandemic had exacerbated my abandonment issues.
“Hm, and how does that feel in your body?” she said. “Very intense,” I replied, like a caricature of Someone in Therapy.
This 180-degree turn is one experienced by most people this year, in various shades. One moment we were casually getting on with our lives and the next we were locked inside for months, with nothing but our anxieties and equally anxious flatmates for company. We’ve all dealt with this in different and overlapping ways: Drinking. Endless walks. Vegetable patches. But many of us have also, for the first time, turned to therapy.
Talk therapy – which is when you chat to a psychotherapist – was once thought of as the domain of unhappy married couples and older people with more disposable income, but that demographic has shifted in recent years. It’s now much more “normal” – whatever that means – for people in their 20s and 30s to be in therapy, and it’s not necessarily confined to those from more well-off backgrounds. I have friends who are unemployed and in therapy, friends who are in debt and in therapy and friends who have gone through at least five therapists by the time they hit 25.
For many of my peers, therapy is viewed as something functional, rather than a pointless expense, almost like joining a gym or getting a haircut. People are more willing than ever to seek professional support – between 2018 and 2019, there were almost half a million more NHS referrals for therapy than in 2014 to 2015, with self-referrals rising by 70.2 percent.
The pandemic, it seems, has normalised it even further. Many people who previously didn’t have the time – because they worked long hours or were rarely at home – have been freed up. “I suffer from really bad anxiety, and this year that obviously worsened,” says Kris, 27. “I hadn’t gone to therapy before because I worked long hours in a salon and didn’t have the energy to travel. But since being furloughed, I actually had the time to find someone and put an hour aside every two weeks.”
Katie, 24, says that therapy has been integral to getting through these past few months. “I had all this heavy relationship shit that needed untangling, and instead of taking stuff out on my boyfriend during lockdown, I realised I needed to find a way to work through stuff healthily.”
Like Kris, lockdown has given Katie more time and space. “It felt too difficult explaining to work why I needed to go to therapy, so I just put it off for ages. So it was a ‘now or never’ type of thing.”
The lack of socialising during the pandemic has also meant that some can finally afford counselling. “I always thought therapy was for rich people, basically,” says Mia, 23. “And I still think it is a privilege, if you’re getting private therapy. But I thought, ‘I’m not going out on the weekends, I’m not eating out anywhere’ which justified the money to myself. I’m not going to lie, I am still in debt, but right now this feels more important.”
Seeking therapy may be more routine than ever, but having access to that therapy is a different matter, especially if you can’t afford to go private – the likely scenario for the 1.5 million people who found themselves unemployed this summer. Mental health services were already underfunded and under strain before the pandemic, and the situation has largely worsened. Back in June, MIND reported that only one in four of those who tried accessing NHS mental health services during lockdown were able to get support.
It’s an especially frightening statistic given that MIND also found that more than one in five adults with no prior experience of mental health issues said that their mental health had become “poor” or “very poor” since the pandemic. In other words, more people than ever would benefit from therapy this year, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in need is able to access it.
Therapy is also a very different thing now. Once, it used to involve sitting opposite a real life person on a comfy chair in a mid-temperature room. Now it involves loading up a video chat, which can make things awkward if your face starts glitching in the middle of relaying childhood trauma, or if your flatmate walks in halfway to chat about the bins.
But the fact therapy has moved online has only added to its appeal for many. “I don’t know if I’d have sought therapy if it was a face-to-face thing,” says Kris. “Skype sessions feel more casual. You’re in the comfort of your own home. It doesn’t feel like such a big deal.”
People have always benefited from therapy, but now that we’ve entered a second lockdown this winter – with all the isolation and difficulties that comes with it – the idea of chatting things through with an impartial party has never looked more pressing. “With things remaining as they are,” Kris adds, “I don’t see myself quitting anytime soon.”