In terms of how we approach healthcare going forward, the pandemic has demonstrated that we cannot rely on modern medicine to solve all our problems. We have, and will again, face pathogens which we cannot destroy with synthetic drugs or scientifically engineered treatments. This time we must follow through on a commitment to improve the health of society as a whole, not just those who are seriously ill.
Lesson learned: resilient minds
Unfortunately, the failure of the current system to prepare our bodies to battle coronavirus physically is just one side of the story. As a nation, we are also struggling to navigate the challenges which the pandemic poses to our mental health. Even before Covid-19, the prevalence of mental health conditions in the UK was staggering, with mental illness being cited as the second-largest source of burden of disease (MHFE, 2020).
However, it appears that the problem may be escalating. Crisis helplines have reported a spike in demand since the lockdown began, while access to services for those already struggling has dramatically reduced (Mind, 2020). It is predicted that the economic impact of the virus will also significantly affect mental health, disproportionally affecting deprived communities, with past recessions indicating that job losses and financial insecurity correlate strongly with increased an incidence of mental distress (WHO, 2007).
For those who have experienced trauma during the pandemic, such as Covid-19 patients and bereaved loved ones, it will certainly be vital to provide a programme of tailored psychological support to prevent negative mental health outcomes. Studies on the Sars-CoV virus suggest that 64% of survivors still had clinically diagnosable levels of depression, trauma and anxiety one year on from their illness, indicating that support will be necessary both in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak and in the years to come (Lee et al, 2007). On top of this, more than 50% of healthcare staff are already reporting declines in their mental health as a result of this coronavirus (Thomas and Pinner, 2020). According to the literature surrounding disaster-exposed organisations, being proactive, by providing access to informal social support and monitoring team wellbeing, is the most effective way to foster psychological resilience within this population (Brooks et al, 2020).
Furthermore, we mustn’t underestimate the impact that the crisis will have on young people’s mental health in the years to come. Despite not being severely impacted by the virus itself, many children, especially those classed as vulnerable, have been exposed to extended periods of uncertainty and fear during the lockdown. Observations from previous pandemics suggest that these experiences have detrimental impacts on children’s sense of security and also increase their risk of developing mental health disorders (Douglas et al, 2009). Not only will this increase demand for young people’s services in the immediate future, but it will probably go on to affect this generation’s wellbeing in later life. Alongside being strongly correlated with psychiatric problems in adulthood (Schilling et al,
2007), adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as psychological trauma, exposure to mental illness or domestic abuse, have also been linked to a higher prevalence of health-harming behaviours in later life. For example one study found a strong dose-dependent relationship between the number of ACEs a child experiences and their likelihood of developing conditions such as heart disease, obesity and cancer (Felitti et al, 1998).
As we look to the future, it will be important to consider not only how we can prevent significant mental health impacts as a result of Covid-19, but also how we
can empower communities to look after their mental wellbeing in the future. In the wake of the pandemic, we need to prioritise meaningful connections both between healthcare professionals and patients, as well as within communities. We should endeavour to create a society in which people are equipped with the skills to manage their emotions in healthy ways, to speak openly about their feelings and to seek help before they reach breaking point.
Lessons learned: a holistic future?
It seems ironic that the main strategy adopted to combat the pandemic, prevention, is one which proponents of holistic medicine have been advocating for in the
healthcare system for years. In the aftermath of the virus, we must stress the importance of this message and ensure that the integration of preventative medicine into the NHS is made a priority. We must shift our attention towards avoiding crisis, rather than treating them once they escalate to unmanageable levels.
While the virus may have served to highlight the anxiety that can be induced by disconnection, a problem which was becoming increasingly pervasive in our pre-pandemic world, we can learn from the astonishing acts of compassion displayed by keyworkers and volunteers in the community. We have proved that society
is capable of adapting quickly to change and can adapt again as we return to a new normal – hopefully guided by a renewed appreciation for close relationships and kindness towards others.
By focusing on lifestyles holistically, cultivating resilient bodies and minds, we can create a society which places a greater value on physical and mental health, community and connection. Not only will this better prepare us for a future pandemic, but it will also allow us to come out of this current one stronger than before.
- Brooks S, Amlôt R, Rubin GJ, Greenberg N (2020) Psychological resilience and post-traumatic growth in disaster-exposed organisations: overview of the literature. BMJ Military Health, 166 (1) 52–56.
- Douglas PK, Douglas DB, Harrigan DC, Douglas KM (2009) Preparing for pandemic influenza and its aftermath: mental health issues considered. International journal of emergency mental health, 11(3)137.
- Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, et al (1998) Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4) 245–258.
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- UK Parliament (2017) Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS. The long-term sustainability of the NHS and adult social care. Report of Session 2016–17. HL Paper 151 Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldnhssus/151/15 109.htm (accessed 4 October 2020).
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