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The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on mental health

The spread of coronavirus and living in lockdown has impacted many people’s mental health. Jade Kidd took a closer look at some of the work going on our community to support people.

The unprecedented times we are living in has left many people worried.

The country is faced with a deadly and invisible foe, while separation from loved ones and the cancellation of plans, groups and social events can also take their toll.

But for people who have had depression or anxiety, these fears can be ‘exacerbated’, says Debbie Workman, the team leader for the East Berkshire and Buckinghamshire branch of peer support group Friends in Need.

While face-to-face group meetings and activities have been cancelled the service, which supports those who are living with mild to moderate depression and/or anxiety, or people who are socially isolated or lonely, has moved online.

It is now delivering virtual activity sessions in a bid to continue supporting members during the lockdown.

The group, which is funded by the NHS and run by Buckinghamshire Mind, aims to reduce social isolation and build ‘community resilience’.

The service is ‘all about peer support’, said Debbie, so its by people who have experienced depression, anxiety and other disorders.

She added: “We are trying to decrease the negativity and increase the positivity.”

The service is for adults and covers four areas: Windsor, Ascot & Maidenhead, Slough, and Bracknell & Buckinghamshire

It would usually see members meet up physically to take part in activities such as arts and crafts and trips to the coast.

But instead the service, which has activities taking place every day, now sees members join Facebook Live and Zoom sessions run by peer volunteers and area co-ordinators. Activities include art, singing, quizzing and guided meditation.

Debbie added that all of their activities are based on the principle of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’, which include ‘to connect’, ‘to give’, ‘to notice and watch’, ‘to learn’, and to ‘be active’.

“Its about people not feeling judged and just having a go at these things,” she said.

Discussing coronavirus, Debbie said: “Some members were just about getting there where they could make it outside and go to groups and now this has happened.

She added that it would have been ‘really difficult’ for members, had they not set up the online sessions.

She said: “You could hear the panic in people’s voices, what’s going to happen now?”

Debbie added: “We’ve had a massive increase in people using our service, as in, looking at videos [and] taking part in our activities, then we would have had.

“This is a lifeline to some people.”

She added: “I’m really proud of our service, it has really blossomed.”

According to Mind, anxiety becomes a mental health problem when it impacts on your ability to ‘live life as fully as you want to’.

Signs include when your anxious feelings ‘are very strong’ or ‘last for a long time’, or if you avoid situations that might cause anxiety.

The charity says symptoms can include ‘a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat’, and ‘having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst’.

“Those people are really going to find it hard to relax and that’s why our service has really helped them because we try and take the focus off things,” Debbie said.

Friends in Need also offers important support for people with depression.

Debbie, who has previously experienced depression herself, said: “Sometimes when people are depressed and anxious, they lose themselves a little bit.

“You forget what you’re good at, you forget who you are and Friends in Need helps people. It gives people a safe platform to have a go and it really increases people’s confidence.”

Friends in Need Slough group member Amber-Marie Nunn has been leading a weekly session teaching sign language on Zoom for members during the lockdown.

The 21-year-old, who experiences depression and social anxiety, was recommended the Friends in Need service by Talking Therapies.

Her mum Yvonne Nunn, who is a peer volunteer at the Slough group and has also previously experienced depression and anxiety, said: “She’s deaf – she can hear some things with her hearing aids and she does sign language.

“When it started [the class] she was like ‘Mum, I can’t do this’ [and] I said ‘come on just say hello to everybody, you already know them all’.”

Touching on the impact of the lockdown on Amber, Yvonne said: “Her social anxiety is better because she doesn’t have to go out and meet people, but the depression is down because she hasn’t got that opportunity to go out and meet people, she’s just stuck in a circle at the moment.

Yvonne, who also runs an arts and crafts group, added: “Without the groups Amber would be very isolated.

“[The sign language class] is helping her but it still takes her a bit of time, though she is getting better with every class she teaches so without the online classes it would be a very lonely experience.”

Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead peer volunteer Phil Haley, 66, who has depression and anxiety, said that the group ‘helps so many people so much’.

He said: “[They] don’t feel isolated, lonely, depressed, anxious, because they can reach out and touch something like the group.

“[The co-ordinators], they’ve done an amazing job.”

Phil added: “There’s obviously anxiety about the virus.

“People, if they are on their own, would struggle but we all talk to each other.

“We all keep the contact which tends to lower the anxiety.

“Without the group I’m sure I’d definitely be struggling myself.”

Peer volunteer Jo Chapman, 71, who is also part of the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead group, and has experienced depression at various times in her life, runs an art group both face-to-face and now online.

She said: “I’ve got a whole range of people that I know and friends that I’ve made through it so that’s really good.”

Discussing the art group she says: “Initially when they started doing the art, they’d say ‘oh I can’t do that Jo’, but I’d just encourage them and now it’s amazing what they can do.”

Phil said: “You notice how much it cheers people up.

“It’s not the actual art that’s the main thing, it’s the way she runs the group and makes everybody feel included.”

Highlighting the current situation, Phil said: “It is an important time, and there will be more support, and a lot more people needing support.”

Debbie siad: “We just want people to know that they don’t have to be on their own [in this] because its hard for everybody.”

Giving tips on how individuals can help their anxiety or depression, Debbie cites having some kind of structure to their day such as getting up and having a shower, keeping in touch with people and joining different groups.

Highlighting the importance of structure, Debbie said: “Sometimes, people who are feeling unwell will ruminate and concentrate on negative emotions.

“Knowing your triggers, having a ‘tool box’, structure and a routine to your life can be of great help.”

Debbie added that she is currently promoting the service ‘because otherwise at the end of this, we’re going to see an increase in mental health problems in depression and anxiety’.

For more information about Friends in Need East Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and to contact the area co-ordinators to join or make a referral visit: https://www.bucksmind.org.uk/services/peer-support-groups/friends-in-need/

For more information and support visit:https://www.mind.org.uk

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