Rachel Kelly says it’s not been all bad: lockdowns have actually improved mental health for many
Around 700 years ago, the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi wrote his celebrated poem The Guest House. In the poem, he casts the individual as a dwelling, and argues that we must allow each chapter of life to take its room within.
We must “treat each guest honourably”, even if “a crowd of sorrows” greets us: our “sorrows” – for which we might read the current pandemic – can be the making of us. Even the most unprepossessing guest, Rumi concludes, “may be clearing you out for
some new delight”.
Is there any “new delight” to be had when it comes to our collective mental health through Covid and this second lockdown? There’s no denying that billions of people around the world have had to cope with grief, economic meltdown, unemployment, boredom and loneliness.
And much has been made of the impact on our state of mind, with reports of rising anxiety, alcoholism and depression, and worsening psychological health for many. Experts warn that this new lockdown will only make matters worse.
Yet a little-publicised report, entitled Collective Resilience, written by Alex Evans and Jules Evans, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, paints a more positive picture. It argues that there is another story to be told alongside the darkness and talk of the perfect storm of mental illness: one in which millions of people have found new depths of resilience, mutual aid, innovation and self-reliance, all of which have nourished their mental well-being through this dark time.
Take how many of us have engaged with the arts in a new and deeper way. A UCL study of 70,000 adults’ mental health during the pandemic found that 22 per cent were engaging more with arts during the lockdown period than usual. Engaging in creative activities – art, gardening, hobbies, reading fiction – was the single most helpful activity for people’s well-being.
Others have found that their mental well-being has benefitted from having more, and less rushed, time with our families. A report by Leeds Trinity University found that increased levels of parental attention during lockdown has led to generally happier children, and improved developmental outcomes for some pre-school children. The report also found that while young people were the worst hit by loneliness, they were also the most connected online. And neighbourhoods became closer-knit too: in the UK, 64 per cent of adults felt that their communities had “come together to help each other” during the crisis.
Meanwhile, there is a sense that we have all been forced to engage with what really matters, and a deeper examination of our values. Google searches for prayer reached their highest ever level during the pandemic. Another report found that one in five Britons say they are turning to psychology and philosophy to find meaning during the crisis. The National Trust found that 68 per cent of adults reported that spending time noticing nature had made them happier during lockdown. Seed shops sold out as people like me began bird-watching for the first time.
We also connected through volunteering, with a million offering to help the NHS, and countless other examples of mutual aid, from neighbours dropping off food, to offers of grocery-shopping for the elderly. Plenty of studies confirm that helping others helps our own mental health: few periods have offered more chances to do so, or given us more of a sense of agency and empowerment that we can make a difference to others.
So many of these healing ideas and ways of behaving are relevant to our mental well-being. This period has reaffirmed my view that we must not always rush to medication, or always pathologise mental health. The pandemic has shown the value of other approaches to our well-being, beyond medication and therapy, not least the search for meaning and purpose rather than just happiness. True mental well-being comes from the flourishing of the whole person, rather than simply the avoidance of ill health.
So there are plenty of new psychological habits I hope to keep from this period. As the report concludes, let us not waste a good crisis. The pandemic has given us a chance to rethink what we mean by mental health, and how we might best protect and nurture it. My hope is that we may be able to hold on to the best of what has emerged in the past few months: those “new delights” of Rumi’s poem.
Rachel Kelly is a mental health advocate and writer. Her latest book is Singing In The Rain: An Inspirational Workbook published by Short Books, £12.99. Buy it here