I rely on my family and friends to pull me through difficult times. I’m sure that’s the case for most people, but when you live with a mental illness, like I do, it’s especially true.
My bipolar type 1 and psychosis mean human connection is vital – it’s as important a part of managing my mental illness as a sleep routine and taking medication. Having like-minded people in support groups to share concerns with, to lean on when times are rough has positively moulded my sense of self after diagnosis, and my family and close friends have been there when mental health services haven’t. It’s not an exaggeration to say they’ve saved my life countless times, often spotting the warning signs of a depressive or manic episode before I do.
But now that’s all changed. With lockdown in place, I can’t see my family and friends, who can no longer play that pivotal role in keeping me stable and healthy when I’m stressed. My work has dried up, with clients cancelling, and projects postponed indefinitely – and that financial anxiety adds another layer of stress to the stress everyone is feeling right now.
Stress is a major trigger for many people with mental illness. For me, stress can morph into a manic or depressive episode, sometimes at the snap of a finger. Family and friends are constantly phoning me to see how I am, but the behaviours they usually pick up on happen most often when we’re socialising in person. Nuances are lost over the phone, or on a quick video chat.
“Being at home, constantly, when you’re mentally ill is exhausting. It feels like you’re trapped, isolated and there’s nothing to look forward to”
Being at home, constantly, when you’re mentally ill is exhausting. It feels like you’re trapped, isolated and there’s nothing to look forward to. I live for the little victories, the small steps, that I can build on. One day it might be just getting out of bed and getting dressed. When you feel you can face this, you know you can do more, and achieve more.
Now, though, with coronavirus bringing months of lockdown, it feels like there’s nothing to build towards. A big part of mental illness is a loss of control – either because of your own actions, or feelings and emotions that you can’t seem to regulate. The covid-19 crisis, naturally, feels entirely out of my control – and that brings back those feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
I have a real fear that this situation will bring on a negative spiral that could potentially make me severely ill. The constant news cycle – which normally affects my anxiety – has gone into overdrive at the moment, so right now I’m trying to ration the amount of time I spend on social media, and deleting news apps from my phone.
For many, though, the biggest concern of the coming days and weeks, centre around accessing medication. I, and many people like me living with severe mental illness, rely on daily medication to function – without it I could become seriously ill, not to mention the effects of going through withdrawal can have. If I do become very mentally poorly, I worry I won’t be able to access the support I’ll need; frontline staff in mental health services were already stretched before covid-19, and though I completely understand they’re needed to help overwhelmed areas of the NHS, I can’t help but feel anxious for what this means for mental health patients like me.
“I’m spending time every evening with my partner, with no TV, no music, just talking about how we’re feeling. It makes me feel like I have some form of control”
All this means it’s vital right now to stay in touch with anyone you know living with mental illness. Isolation and loneliness are major triggers, and if someone you know is vulnerable to mental health problems, I can tell you it’s not going to suddenly get any easier. Don’t wait for someone to reach out when they’re already at breaking point; reach in, contact them, lend a listening ear. Our conditions aren’t going to take a break during this pandemic, and it’s more than likely they’ll be exacerbated.
If you live with or have a partner with mental illness, they’re going to need your support more than ever. Make sure you talk through their concerns and anxieties. Help them put together a self care box that will help them if they become ill – I have a ‘crisis box’ that includes soothing items like candles, comfy socks, favourite music and more practical items, such as helpline numbers. As for me, I’m spending time every evening with my partner, with no TV, no music, just talking about how we’re feeling. It makes me feel like I have some form of control over my emotions, and helps keep me calmer.
Mental illness doesn’t take a break, and we mustn’t feel guilty for that – we’re all deserving of support. It’s going to be tough, but we can get through this if we support one another.
Katie Conibear is a freelance writer and mental health advocate. Follow her on Twitter at @katieconibear.
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Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.