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As the recent lockdown measures begin to affect us all in unanticipated ways, Dr Paul Gorczynski, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Science and Health, writes on the importance of ‘mental health literacy’, a skill that can benefit us now and far into the future:

In the past few weeks, a great deal has been written about the lockdown and the consequences it has been having on people’s mental health. Since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 pandemic on 12 March, 2020, governments in the UK and much of the world have imposed some form of lockdown.

The lockdown was introduced in the UK to reduce physical interactions amongst people. In a sense, the lockdown, or guidance given on social distancing, aimed to lower the number of people who would contract the virus, reduce the number of individuals who would require hospitalisation, and, ultimately, reduce the number of deaths stemming from COVID-19 complications.

As essential as these measures are to mitigate COVID-19 transmission, reports in the media have indicated that people have felt socially isolated and lonely as a result of the lockdown. Both feelings of social isolation and loneliness can have a negative impact on people’s mental health, not only now but well into the future, and for younger and older people alike. There have also been reports of people who have started to feel depressed and anxious as a result of the lockdown.

But, hold on a second. What do all of these terms actually mean? What is mental health? What does it mean to feel socially isolated and lonely? What does it feel like to be depressed or anxious? And what can people do to feel better?

Reading the news about mental health requires individuals to have a certain level of mental health literacy. Put simply: people need to understand what they’re reading. And you may be surprised to learn that people in the UK have a low level of literacy pertaining to overall health, and this includes mental health. This not only means that people have a poor understanding of mental health symptoms and disorders, but they also have negative views of poor mental health and have very few intentions to seek treatment. They also don’t know where to turn to for support.

Why is this important? Well, generally, the more literate people are about their mental health, the more likely they will do something about it.

When discussing mental health and factors that impact our mental health, it is important to be clear and specific. Mental health is defined as a state of wellbeing, where individuals realise their own potential and abilities, can cope with normal daily stresses, can work in a productive manner, and make contributions to their community. Here, you want to think about your mental health as a resource. Like physical health, it helps you do things, whatever they may be. Big or small. Your mental health allows you feel, think, and behave in a manner that can help you identify challenges in your daily life, and do something to about them.

Social isolation measures social interactions and relationships objectively, and is concerned with the quantitative aspects of interaction. So, if you rarely call anyone, chat with anyone, or see anyone, you’re going to feel socially isolated. In this situation, you have no or few social interactions and feel disconnected from people.

Loneliness, on the other hand, can be defined as an emotional state and understood as the difference between desired and actual social relationships. Loneliness is the perceived isolation one may feel and is very much concerned with the quality of relationships one may have. So, if you have a desire to have many friends, yet know only a few people, you’re going to feel lonely. And to add, if you don’t feel particularly close with any of those individuals, you’re going to feel even more lonely.

It’s important to remember most people feel socially isolated and lonely at times. During a pandemic, where everyone is on lockdown, these are feelings more people are going to experience. As a result, researchers and public health organisations have put out information to help people connect with others in a meaningful way.

With regards to depressive and anxiety symptoms – that may come from feeling socially isolated and lonely – they mean different things. When people are feeling depressed, they experience: irritability, decreased mood, feeling sad or empty, feelings of worthlessness or guilty, changes in their activity (either excessively active or really slow), decreased interest or pleasure in most things, an inability to sleep, extreme fatigue, decreased ability to think or concentrate, fluctuations in their weight, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. For a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, five symptoms must be present for at least two weeks, where at least one symptom must be a decreased mood, or decreased interest or pleasure.

When people are feeling anxious, they experience: excessive worry, feeling restless, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, being fatigued easily, irritability, and difficulties with sleeping. For a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, individuals will have had to experience feelings of excessive worry for at least 6 months, as well as three other symptoms listed above. People also need to ensure that these feelings have significantly impaired important areas of their lives.

To examine and evaluate either depressive or anxiety symptoms, it’s necessary to speak to your GP or mental health professional. Only they can provide a diagnosis of any mental disorder. Given the current lockdown, this may not be possible, but you may be able to schedule a telephone appointment. Check with your local surgery.

Knowing more about common mental health symptoms and disorders means you are more equipped to search out accurate information that will be of help, more likely to formulate positive and helpful views and attitudes toward yourself and seek support, and more likely to do something to help improve your overall mental health. Mental health resources found online can help with improving overall mental health literacy and can help individuals seek appropriate services. Websites provided by the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, NHS are well equipped to provide you with accurate information and ways to engage in self-help material and seek support, even during times of lockdown.

Stay informed, stay well.