Rethinking mental health, wellbeing and equality

December 7, 2020

Millions of newspaper column inches and countless broadcast hours have been devoted to the economic impact of COVID-19, but what about the pandemic’s legacy on our mental health and wellbeing, and efforts to introduce greater equality across the country? Steven Hugill looks at the present landscape and sees an opportunity for watershed change.

“Life has a funny way of repeating itself.”

“Life has a funny way of repeating itself.”

No, that’s not a typing error, but instead a nod to the film Groundhog Day.

Specifically, it’s a reference to a line from the production’s trailer, and a play on its main protagonist’s travails as he relives the same day over and again.

Just like Bill Murray’s weatherman character Phil Connors found himself in the 1993 comedy, we’ve all become part of the same daily loop.

Phil’s life of repetition began – and remained stuck – in early February; ours started in March and, but for a brief summer recess, will continue into next year.

I should point out here, that I’m in no way trying to trivialise COVID-19.

As someone who has seen close at hand the pandemic’s devastating impact – and who lived ad nauseum through a first lockdown routine of working from home and dealing with the uncertainty of furlough, all while trying to placate a one-year-old daughter and being isolated from extended family and friends – I know coronavirus is no laughing matter.

Indeed, nowhere is its severity more reflected than the effects it has had – and continues to have – on our mental health and wellbeing.

With vast swathes of jobs lost, working patterns changed and social lives held in a damaging state of suspension, COVID-19 has magnified existing inequality and exclusion in society and made us, as individuals, look in a mirror and redefine who we are.

That, of course, isn’t easy – and new evidence on the pandemic’s bearing on our mental health and wellbeing proves the point.

According to a report recently published by The Northern Health Science Alliance, the National Institute for Health Research Applied Research Collaborations and the National Institute for Health Research School of Public Health Research, the pandemic has already left deep repercussions.

Putting the economic cost of increased deaths at £6.86 billion, the study found the implications of reduced mental health provision across the Northern Powerhouse area caused by COVID-19, could annually cost the UK economy £5 billion in reduced productivity.

It is here that I’m reminded of our fictional meteorologist.

In Groundhog Day, Phil eventually escapes his Pennsylvanian déjà vu after redirecting his moral compass and making a step-change in the way he approaches his life. We too can leave our own repetitive world with a similarly watershed moment.

This pandemic has crystalised our understanding of the importance around mental health and awoken within us a concerted desire to level up not just the country but every section of society.

COVID-19 will forever be remembered for the huge tragedy it has been.

But if we can harness the implications it has had on our wellbeing to improve future awareness, and if we can build on the work of footballer Marcus Rashford, for example, and ensure this is a country that gives children of all backgrounds a chance to succeed, then we can break the loop with a positive outlook.

And the wheels, it thankfully seems, are in motion. As North East Times went to print, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was unveiling a £500 million package to bolster mental health services, with cash planned to fund specialist services for young people, including those in schools, and support for NHS workers.

John McCabe, who stood as an independent candidate in last year’s North of Tyne mayoral election – with policies that included creating a commission on opportunity to improve diversity, equality, social mobility and mental health – says he is relieved to see such steps being taken.

“We can either choose to carry on doing what we’ve always done and then wonder why nothing has changed or we can resolve to fix this,” says John, who is founder of Fusion PR Creative and immediate past president of the North East England Chamber of Commerce

“Specifically, on mental health, I believe there is one step we urgently need to take, and it’s something I’ve long campaigned for.

“We need to provide better and more accessible mental health support to young people, and I’d like to see a mental health professional in every school.

“Things are happening, and it gives me cause for optimism; we have to keep up this momentum if we’re going to see real and lasting change.

“The old ways won’t do if we’re going to stop this decline and give everybody who deserves one a fair shot in life.”

John, who is also a North East Local Enterprise Partnership board member, says he is thrilled with the local response to COVID-19’s impact on mental health and wellbeing, as well as inequality and exclusion, with organisations and individuals recognising this period as a catalyst for definitive change.

“My sense is, that great swathes of society see this as a moment in time,” he continues.

“Marcus Rashford has used his voice to create a movement that has seen an outpouring of generosity, leading to a change in Government policy, and I’m extremely heartened to see so many of our institutions in the North East working together to highlight and improve the health, wealth and wellbeing of our region.

“Local authorities and healthcare providers are collaborating in new ways; our Chamber of Commerce is campaigning not only for a stronger North East, but for a fairer economy.

“And levelling up is at the heart of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Recovery and Renewal Deal for the North East too,” adds John, who is a trustee of the Millfield House Foundation, which funds policy work aimed at reducing poverty and inequality in the region.

“This ambitious, evidence-based offer to Government is the product of a fantastic collaboration between the private, public and voluntary sectors, trade unions and academia.

“If any good comes from the terrible tragedy of COVID-19, it will be that it has brought society to a crossroads on matters of inequality and exclusion.”

Natasha McDonough reflects John’s point on the shifting focus around mental health and wellbeing, revealing she has already seen changes to the way we interact with each other.

Furthermore, Natasha, managing director at Sunderland-based MMC Research & Marketing, believes people are now much more receptive to support.

“I strongly feel the pandemic has changed the way business owners communicate with one another,” says Natasha.

“Typical, shallow questions to start meetings, such as ‘are you busy?’ are changing to ‘how are you doing?’ and I think that’s incredibly refreshing.”

For Natasha, who is also chair of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Sunderland committee, her understanding of the situation was helped earlier in the year, when she offered staff counselling sessions and undertook a national survey of leaders.

“Internally at MMC, I could see people were struggling with their feelings, so I offered to pay for six sessions of counselling for each member of staff,” reveals Natasha.

“I wanted to help fellow business owners too, so decided to dedicate some of our time to do a national mental health survey to find out how leaders were feeling and what kind of support would help them.

“The key finding I took was that 61 per cent of respondents believed peer-to-peer support helped them and that they would want to tap into that in future.

“They also stated they would want to attend workshops on topics such as stress.

“My thinking was that I could take those findings to the likes of the North East England Chamber of Commerce – and others – to encourage more support for business owners’ mental health.”

And therein lies the future.

By working to better understand people’s thoughts and feelings, and by putting the work in now, we can not only create a positive future for the present day but lay the foundations for an even better future on the other side of this pandemic.

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