Sussex psychologist on how lockdown is affecting our mental health – and what support is available

How has the lockdown affected people’s mental health, and what support is available in Sussex for those who are struggling? We spoke to Jane Edmonds, consultant clinical psychologist with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, to find out.

Jane Edmonds, a consultant clinical psychologist with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
Jane Edmonds, a consultant clinical psychologist with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, services in Sussex have seen a large rise in the number of people seeking support for mental health issues.

That is according to Jane Edmonds, a consultant clinical psychologist with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which provides specialist mental health and learning disability services in Sussex and in Hampshire.

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In response to the pandemic, the trust has expanded its telephone helpline, the Sussex Mental Healthline, to provide a 24/7 service, offering crisis mental health information and support – and the service has seen a ‘big demand’ so far.

Dr Edmonds said the lockdown was challenging everybody’s mental health to a certain extent, as people grappled with feelings of isolation, concerns about employment and of loved ones falling ill. “That’s quite normal,” she said. “We are all experiencing a sense of anxiety, fear, loss or being in a low mood, and for most of us these are transitory and won’t last for long.”

Such feelings could even be useful and act as ‘cues for action’, she said, adding: “If you’re feeling isolated, it might be a cue to make a phone call to a couple of friends.”

However, she continued; “For some people their experience of psychological difficulties is such that it begins to impact on their daily life.

“It’s that group that we are particularly concerned about and want to encourage to access the support they might need.”

Up to 50 per cent of the population were reluctant to access NHS support at the moment, Dr Edmonds said, whether through fear of burdening the service or fear of catching the virus.

Her message to the public is that the trust is taking ‘significant steps’ to ensure that their services are safe.

It is also increasing the use of telephone appointments, so that people do not have to come in to their facilities. “That’s working well,” she said.

People at risk

The trust is currently highlighting certain groups of society which are more at risk of facing challenges to their mental health.

This includes elderly people, who Dr Edmonds said were at ‘high risk of feeling isolated and vulnerable’.

She said it was important that older people reached out to their families and friends and made use of many of the community mutual aid groups which have sprung up in the community, as well as care organisations.

Another potentially high-risk group was unpaid carers, Dr Edmonds said.

“Carers may be having to juggle having to work along with caring responsibilities. They might be without the normal respite and support,” she said.

“We are hearing from a lot of carers that they are feeling very overwhelmed.”

She said it was important that they look after themselves, so that they could look after others.

Some carers were anxious about what would happen if they became ill and could no longer support the person they care for, and Dr Edmonds encouraged anyone in this position to talk to the trust and put a plan in place.

“It’s better to do something sooner rather than later, rather be part of a conversation that talks about prevention and planning, rather than be in a position of responding to a crisis,” she said.

People with existing mental health conditions may also be particularly struggling during the pandemic and noticing an increase in symptoms, and Dr Edmonds said she ‘really encouraged’ anyone who was struggling to seek help from the trust.

Meanwhile people with autism might find that the affect of the pandemic on their daily routine made them feel anxious.

People with learning disabilities may struggle to understand why the services or groups they attend were closed.

Dr Edmonds has this advice for anyone caring for people with learning disabilities during this time: “We are really recommending people are given clear explanations of what is happening and why.

“People supporting them can help establish really clear routines, with exercise and good nutrition.”

Since the easing of the lockdown measures were announced, some people’s mental health may have benefitted thanks to increased opportunities to spend time outside.

However, Dr Edmonds said: “Rather ironically, for some people there might be more anxiety as some of the restrictions are lifted.”

While to start with, during the first few weeks of lockdown, there were ‘very clear messages’ about what was permitted.

“As these messages are relaxed, there’s some anxiety for people about what their responses should be, what they should or should not be doing,” she said.

Looking ahead, Dr Edmonds said the effects of the pandemic were likely to be felt for a long time to come, particularly for those working on the front line.

And while some people might not feel their mental health had been affected, she said: “It may be that it’s later down the line that people start experiencing the psychological consequences of the pandemic.”

Top tips for looking after your mental health

When it comes to looking after our mental health during the pandemic, these were Dr Edmonds’ top tips for members of the public:

– Make a routine. “One that makes sure you are getting up and going to bed at the same time every day, includes some exercise, good nutrition, good sleep hygiene, and making sure that we stay connected to our friends and families and our community, through all the usual channels and all the new channels like zoom and skype,” she said.

– Stay informed. Make sure you know what the latest Government guidelines are.

Dr Edmonds said: “For a lot of people, that helps them plan how they’re going to act.”

However she added: “For some people, getting overwhelmed with too much information is not helpful and can increase anxiety.” These people should try to limit the amount of news they see each day.

– Do something you enjoy every day. Dr Edmonds said it was beneficial for people to have ‘something they can achieve and within their control’.

It could be taking time to sit outside in peace with a coffee in the morning, learning something new or picking up an old hobby again.

– Practice some relaxation or meditation. Dr Edmonds said they were ‘lots of fantastic apps’ to help people relax or meditate or exercise.

But she also said people should draw on whatever techniques they usually use to help them unwind.

She said: “I sometimes think people have their own ways of relaxing. The things they know that work for them.”

– Look after your physical health – which is especially important if you have pre-existing health conditions.

– Avoid an over-reliance on alcohol or other recreational drugs. Dr Edmonds said there was evidence that some people were drinking more than usual, and concern that some were drinking ‘significantly more’.

People who find themselves drinking more because of being in a low mood should consider calling the mental health helpline to talk through the underlying issues.

– Respect others in your household. Dr Edmonds said many people were spending more time with their families, often together in a small space.

It was important to spend quality time together, but also quality time apart, and to respect people’s dependence and independence, she added.

Where to find support

Support is available for those who are struggling with their mental health. Here is where to find help:

– The Sussex Mental Healthline, run by the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust is, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering crisis mental health information and support for service users, family members, friends, carers and staff – call 0300 5000 101.

– The Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust has lots of useful information on its website, including:
Advice on how to look after your mental health during the pandemic

– The NHS’s Every Mind Matters website is full of mental health help and advice, and it has also published ten tips to help you if you’re worried about coronavirus. Find it at www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/

– You can also contact The Samaritans for confidential support on 116 123