18th September 2020 - Northern Irelands new Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan OÕNeill pictured at her Dungiven home. Photo by Stephen Hamilton

The Impact of Covid on Mental Health – An epidemic within a pandemic

By Nicole McBride

As the second lockdown comes to an end and restrictions start to lighten, the realities of NI mental health crisis are becoming glaringly clear for young people throughout Northern Ireland.

Recent studies have shown that rates of mental illness in NI are around 25% higher than other areas of the UK.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill, the NI Mental Health Champion has been working throughout this year to promote, lead and co-ordinate work across NI government departments.

She says that: “Most people will not develop a mental health problem as a result of the pandemic. However, the people to be most affected are those with pre-existing mental health problems.

As restrictions lighten, the issues that people will experience could be both positive and negative. Professor O’Neill says:

“Most people will be pleased that lockdown is coming to an end and that they can get back to their friends. These social connections are so important to protect our mental health and keep us well regulated.”

Caoimhe Clements, a 22-year-old photography and visual production student from Kilkeel has suffered with anxiety throughout lockdown said:

“Even though technology is great for helping you stay connected, you still miss the human and the physical connection of seeing people in real life.”

“Missing people in general has affects’ on your physical and mental health. That in itself is a factor why I was going through bad periods of anxiety.”

Caoimhe’s anxiety begun in her teenage years with mild everyday challenges and stresses. Manifesting to the point where she would be suffering with physical symptoms during the pandemic.

This correlates with Siobhan’s research that: “Children and young people are the ones we are most worried about. That is a time when their brain is developing and learning to cope with stress. A lot of pressure and stress at that time can influence you when you’re older.”

According to a prevalent study for children and young people, it has shown that more young people have mental health problems than in other areas.

Professor O’Neill states: “We need to get in there for those families who are struggling and the children and young people who are at risk.”

Another issue that is affecting people in a negative way as we finally emerge from lockdown is health anxiety.

Siobhan explains that; “Most people will be OK, but there are groups of people who will be really scared of getting Coronavirus, getting one of the mutations or getting the virus from a person who is not vaccinated.”

“That health anxiety is a mental illness disorder in itself.”

Marina Clarke (34), a Health and Social Care policy student at Ulster University and a Mind Your Mood ambassador has contracted the virus twice over the past year and was hospitalised both times.

She says, “When restrictions were lightened for the first time on 31st July all I could think was that you never know who you are going to bump into. I was trying to protect me, trying to protect my granny and my nephew who had just been born.”

“This is another reason why my mental health has deteriorated, because it’s still in my head that I’m going to pass covid on to people. Even when I’m told it’s not covid, it could be a false negative.”

Marina, who is a keen advocator about reducing the stigma around mental health has suffered from problems with finding help from a GP.

She says, “If I go in with a physical problem, they automatically assume it’s in your head because you have a mental diagnosis.”

Throughout the past year as it has been become clear through studies that there will be a demand of mental health services in Northern Ireland, the government has been working with Siobhan to fill in the gaps when it comes to mental health.

Siobhan says: “There has been a lot of work, however it’s just not very well known about. The Department of Health and all those different mental health groups have been working hard to make sure those services are there for people.”

“The government departments all realise they have a role to play.”

A mental health strategy is also being set up by Professor Siobhan O’Neill and various departments within the assembly including the Department of Health and Department of Education, along with Dr Michel McBride and all the top NI ministers.

“This is a 10-year plan to improve mental health services because the services right now are not able to meet the needs of the population, even before the pandemic.” Siobhan explains.

However, the most pressing issue in regard to dealing with mental illness that has come from the pandemic is the urgent need for crisis services and improved access to therapies, counselling, family planning and play therapies for children.

“This is going on at the same time as a long-term plan.”

But what does the population, especially the younger population need when it comes to protecting their mental health?

Caoimhe Clements commented that; “The months leading up to the pandemic, they believed the government treated mental health as a luxury rather than an actual priority.

“What people with mental health problems want to hear is that the government has their backs. Particularly people in their 20’s as the new generation.”

“I feel that if there is more transparency and if they show the work that they are doing, there would be a better relationship between the government and young people.”

“They want to know that the current government listens to what they need.”

If you’ve been affected by anything in this article get in contact with one of the many mental health charities in Northern Ireland including Aware NI and Mindwise.

18th September 2020 – Northern Irelands new Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan OÕNeill pictured at her Dungiven home. Photo by Stephen Hamilton