Nikki Grahame may be one of the most high profile deaths that’s a result of lockdown and a lack of adequate mental health care, but she’s unlikely to be the only one.
We know full well the severe impact of the past year on the nation’s mental wellbeing. We know that reports of depression and anxiety are up. We know that isolation allows despair to fester and spread like a particularly voracious type of mould, and that this can be deadly.
Coronavirus has shut off access to mental healthcare that can save lives. Not just in the most obvious senses, of making inpatient clinics less accessible, filling hospital beds, discharging patients, and cancelling in-person therapy sessions, but in the subtle ways a pandemic makes people feel entirely unable to ask for help.
According to a survey by Mind, one in four people who attempted to ask for mental health help during lockdown were unable to access support. A third of adults said they didn’t even bother asking, because they just didn’t think their issues were serious enough when compared to Covid-19.
It’s easy for Covid ‘truthers’ to use the mental health crisis as an excuse to put an end to lockdown. They’ll point to loneliness, depression, suicide risk, stories of crisis, and shout that this proves lockdown just isn’t worth it (or it’s some wider government conspiracy to take away freedoms etc etc).
But lockdown is essential. The severity of our mental health crisis doesn’t dimish just how serious the risk of Covid-19 is. The answer isn’t reopening everything that was closed and assuming that our minds will be healed… which they wouldn’t, to be clear. Remember how we were already having quite a shit time, mentally, pre-pandemic?
What’s outrageous isn’t the decision to enforce lockdown measures, but that, with full knowledge of how these measures and the collective trauma of a pandemic will affect us, those in power seem woefully unprepared for the inevitable outcome. This time last year, maybe that could be excused - after all, how could we be prepared for the totally unexpected? But now after months of the evidence playing out in front of our eyes, the UK is still woefully lacking.
Where is the investment into mental healthcare? Where’s the provision of outreach programmes, to make contact with the people who are most isolated? Why aren’t we doing something, anything, when for the past year it’s been entirely clear how dire our situation has become?
Nikki Grahame’s mum pled for help on morning TV, stating that her daughter’s experience of anorexia worsened due to lockdown and loneliness. She still couldn’t get access to the treatment needed to save her life. Her family have since said that they believe Nikki would still be alive if she hadn’t been discharged from hospital so quickly.
There will have been other cases like this, that we haven’t heard about; cases of people who have hit their lowest point, finally been able to ask for help, and found that what they were given was lacking.
There will be people right now, pushed to depths from which they feel they can’t escape. That’s not because of lockdown, necessarily. Mental illness existed long before this. But for so many, the past year has made that state of mind heavier and darker, in ways that don’t feel possible to overcome.
It’s natural to question why people can’t just hold on a little longer, why they can’t see that things are returning back to normal. But when you’re in a real low, the future can feel less solid, the things to look forward to are hazier, hollower.
And even if people do hold on, the end of lockdown won’t magically make everything better. The mental health impact of Covid will be long-lasting.
What’s essential is that those in power acknowledge this, acknowledge that without action - actual, concrete changes to help those struggling - there will be more deaths, ones that could have been avoided had they just done something.
We’re going to look back post-Covid and ask whether the right calls were made, whether more deaths from coronavirus could have been prevented. Part and parcel of that must be an honest look at how we failed those struggling with mental illness.
Then, action. It’s not too late. It’s not time to put our heads in our hands and mourn the loss, the mistakes, as if they’re in the past. We’re still in this, both the pandemic and the crushing despair, and it’s vital to act now.
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