It’s a Wednesday morning and I’ve just made the decision to visit Alison*, who is in her mid-40s and lives alone. Although I’ve been working with her for over a year, I haven’t seen her in person for several months because of the pandemic.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve become increasingly concerned for Alison’s wellbeing. We’ve been speaking on the phone regularly and, while she seemed to be managing well earlier in lockdown, she lost her job and she’s been tearful and seems to be feeling hopeless.
As a mental health social worker, I work with people who have very severe and enduring mental health problems, providing practical and psychological support to help them live independent and fulfilling lives.
Throughout the pandemic, my colleagues and I have kept face-to-face visits to a minimum. But in urgent situations, like when it’s clear someone is deteriorating, we will still do in-person visits.
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As I continued to check in on Alison, I could sense that I needed to see her in person opposed to the weekly phone calls we’d be doing. Video calls haven’t been possible because Alison finds them really uncomfortable, so we’ve relied on speaking over the phone and I could sense a change.
She became distant during our conversations, telling me she no longer leaves the house, not even for a short walk, because she doesn’t see the point – this is very unusual for her.
Not being able to see her has been difficult as I can’t tell how she’s doing by looking at her mannerisms or facial expressions or whether she’s managing to keep on top of things around the house.
But when I get to Alison’s, we’re able to sit in her garden and have a really open conversation. It feels strange wearing a mask and makes it harder to show that I’m listening and understanding, but it’s still easier for me to be a reassuring presence in person. It reminds her that I’m here for her.
Alison tells me how she’s feeling, including her worries about finding a job. Together we work on a safety plan to help her recognise when she is becoming unwell, what she can do to help herself when that happens – like going out for a walk and getting in touch with her friends – and how to get further help if she needs it, either by speaking with me or someone else in the service I work in.
I also refer her to a colleague who can help her find financial support – but I know it’s not just the money worries that are affecting her, so I try to focus on building her confidence and reminding her of her skills and abilities.
I leave the meeting feeling much more reassured. Alison says that seeing me and talking to someone face-to-face has made a difference, and I think it’s a good sign that she really engaged in putting together her safety plan.
Many of the people I work with have been deeply affected and will likely need support for a long time, and we’ve seen a big increase in referrals to the service
It’s rewarding to be able to make a difference to someone when they’re feeling so low. Without my support, I worry that Alison would become more withdrawn and would stop taking care of herself altogether.
It’s well documented that Covid-19 is having a negative impact on the nation’s mental health, with loneliness being one of the key drivers. Research published in June by mental health charity, Mind, found that feelings of loneliness have made nearly two-thirds of people’s mental health worse during the pandemic.
As someone working with around 30 people at any one time who have mental health problems – including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – I’ve found that this sadly rings true.
My team’s work involves engaging people in community groups and helping them widen their networks, but a lot of the progress we’ve made has been compromised under lockdown. People of all ages have been affected by social isolation.
I support older people who live alone, but also younger people who have been isolated from those they had expected to be around and have had to re-think their plans.
One of the people I’ve been working with is Michael* who has very low confidence after his mental health struggles led him to be hospitalised a number of times. He is very anxious about social situations and finds it difficult to make friends.
Over the past two years, my main aim with Michael has been to help him build up his self-esteem and support him in his goal to go to university and train to become a teacher.
Last year he achieved something brilliant – he went back to college and got the GCSE Maths grade he needed. The next step was for him to do some volunteering and we found him a role in a charity shop. He was enjoying meeting people and taking on responsibilities, but then the pandemic came and he had to shield.
Michael really suffered from the loss of routine and felt like he’d taken a step back in his recovery. It was difficult for him to stay optimistic when he didn’t know how his goals might be affected by Covid-19. I was worried about him and how lonely he was.
Luckily, I’ve found that video calls have worked really well for him. We’ve been able to have good conversations and used screen sharing to work on plans together. Even though we can now do socially-distanced face-to-face visits, we’ll continue video calling as well.
Before the second lockdown, Michael had returned to volunteering and it was incredibly satisfying to see how hopeful he feels for the future.
Despite the challenges, there have certainly been some positives of the pandemic for my team. It has forced us to be more creative and find new ways of working, from using video calls, which are beneficial to some, to making online resources for service users to access.
It has also highlighted the resilience of many people who are experiencing mental health issues and the importance of creating our own support networks and ways of coping for the future.
But we mustn’t forget that the mental health effects of the pandemic are going to be long-lasting. Many of the people I work with have been deeply affected and will likely need support for a long time, and we’ve seen a big increase in referrals to the service.
As we’re in the midst of a second national lockdown, the future still looks very uncertain. We’ve learnt a lot from this year and are better prepared now, but it will still be a challenging time for lots of the people I work with, especially as this lockdown comes alongside darker days and colder weather.
But we will get through it – communities will pull together again, our service will think even more creatively about how to support the people we’re working with, and once again people will draw on, and perhaps become more aware of, their own resilience.
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
Thea Radburn trained as a social worker through the Think Ahead programme, and was chosen as Mental Health Social Worker of the Year in 2019.
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