Why in some ways this feels like the toughest period of the pandemic

Lockdowns and subsequent lows

The week governments ordered people to remain at home, over two years ago, was one of the toughest moments of the Coronavirus pandemic. On a general population level, there have been multiple moments since then that have caused just as much disruption, if not more so. New lockdowns have been introduced or extended, and day-to-day freedoms have been curtailed. Family get-togethers have been ruined. What’s more, some families were separated.

Businesses have failed. Poverty and inequality have worsened in many geographies. States became even more indebted than they were after the 2007-08 financial crash. In some countries and locations, life expectancy is now lower than it was in 2019.

For large numbers of families worldwide, the Coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been a mere inconvenience. It has fundamentally changed their family and their quality of their life.

Too many people have lost their lives, needlessly, at too young an age, cruelly, or without loved ones by their side.

The virus is no less problematic now than it was in 2020. New variants continue to see the virus transmitted at ever greater levels of speed. People continue to be re-infected, even when they have been triply vaccinated. Public health experts (on Long Covid) and (on herd immunity) argue the virus is not, as some commentators argue, milder. It’s certainly not milder for many of the individuals it now affects. Long Covid continues to do great damage.

But as a coach, a friend, a son, and a person who’s recently started seeing a counsellor again, I’m beginning to wonder something else. Are we now going through one of the toughest periods of all? Is the pressure to return to a state of ‘normality’ when what’s ‘normal’ has forever been uprooted, causing us great damage, including damage to our mental health?

It’s a truism to state that 2022 doesn’t feel like 2019. Everybody agrees that things have changed unalterably. In the sense we must continue to take sensible precautions and place greater emphasis on public health, few disagree: there is no returning to a pre-Covid age.

My point is that we’re being asked, whoever we are, and in all our diverse circumstances, to get back to ‘ordinary life’. Yet life doesn’t feel ‘ordinary’. Far from it.

Living with the Coronavirus isn’t as simple as governments seem to suggest.

In flimsy policy documents there are economic imperatives: ‘we must get back to business’ is one undercurrent of government policy.

The ‘new normal’ – of increasingly being expected to return to offices, for instance, or manage one’s mental health as if everything were ‘normal’, (and now that restrictions have eased, we should be ‘happy’ or ‘fine’), feels to me, at least, remarkably abnormal.

For many of us, things remain uncertain and peculiar. For some, things remain downright unpleasant.


A decade of strange change

There are other challenges, to be sure.

The cost of living crisis, and the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, have upended the logic that after the worst of the Coronavirus, 2022 would be a better or easier year. The Bank of England is making grim economic predictions about the year ahead and inflation of 7-10% depending on the country someone lives in is hitting people in their pockets. Of course, things are hard.

I’ve heard it argued that the 2020s will continue to be characterised by periods of intense change, a pace of change, in fact, previously unknown to our ancestors. That might sound like hyperbole. Who can honestly say previous generations, living through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, for example, or the 1960s for that matter, didn’t experience profound, sometimes uncomfortable, change?

One question for this period is whether the change we’re experiencing is occurring at such a scale, and the norms we’re expected to live by feel so remarkably different, that what’s unique about the 2020s is not so much that it’s a decade of change, but, the changes are exacting greater costs on population wellbeing and mental health.

Could it be said the changes we face are so qualitatively – so existentially – different, that we face consequences we’re uniquely ill-suited to face?

The climate emergency comes to mind.

Whatever good was achieved at COP26 in Glasgow, we’re clearly headed for extraordinary change – to our ecosystems, to our very way of life. We worry about our planet in a way that few generations before us have. Is this hyperbole? Check this out.

Children aged ten or younger in the year 2020 are projected to experience a nearly four-fold increase in extreme weather events under 1.5°C of global warming by 2100, and a five-fold increase under 3°C warming, which on current projections, is where we are headed. Globally, the percentage of the population exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from today’s 30% to 48-76% by the end of the century.

Andrew, my goodness, I hear you saying. Why all the doom and gloom? It’s spring.

Aren’t you supposed to be a coach who encourages positive thinking?

I mention this because I don’t live in a vacuum.

Speaking to various people this past month or so, I get the sense many individuals are experiencing greater difficulties than at any previous stage in the pandemic. It’s certainly true of my father, who I worry about more and more. Why might many individuals be experiencing greater difficulties? I couldn’t say, but it might have something to do with the pressure we’re placing on ourselves, and the unreal pressure to return to some kind of ‘normal’ when what’s normal isn’t easy to find. The world around us – which we’re being invited to step out into, bolder and unrestrained – isn’t remotely ‘normal’. I too feel this pressure to adapt. I’m not unique. I, too, took some comfort in the lockdowns of 2020, not relishing them of course, but coming to terms with their simplicity. I am an introvert at heart. What was so wrong about staying indoors?

I’ve had Covid multiple times – never, thank goodness, in a way that has caused me serious health problems – and at times recovering from Covid has shaken my confidence. I don’t want to socialise lots. I don’t want to be around lots of people at the same time. I am not depressed. I just don’t think my old ‘normal’ necessarily needs to be my ‘new normal’.

I hear from others. For some, I get the sense that life feels like it now needs to speed up and be lived on different terms, as we collectively become more conscious of how short life is, and how threatened our world is. Oliver Burkeman has written about the average life span – four thousand weeks – and how for many of us, there’s an immense pressure to ‘do, do, do’: living life to a calculus that we must forever be productive.

There are the more mundane pressures, but these don’t feel mundane for those who are affected. Introverts are not the only people who came to appreciate Covid-19 mandates to work from home. Many now feel forced to return to offices.

A strange logic has taken hold; what worked very well for the last two years was exceptional and can no longer work quite so well [say some employers and HR managers]. Why so? Why must so many workers abandon new models of flexible working, centred around work-life balance and improved family life? Why must those who only need a decent internet connection to prove productive feel outcast at work, isolated indeed if they insist they’d prefer a life continuing to work from home? I know of at least one friend under this pressure at work.

And yet there are bigger challenges. The news agenda is unforgiving and relentless. We are told the people we need to trust to keep us safe and deliver a more secure future are untrustworthy. Be it the police, politicians, or other institutions once revered or trusted, over the past decade or so, there’s been such erosion in trust, and Partygate scandals in the UK and the sexism and misogyny currently being exposed in the British Parliament hardly help.

In such circumstances, where’s our ‘North Star’? Are people returning in greater numbers to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple? In this Age of Aquarius, certainly more of us are attuned to our mind-body psychology and the need to look inwards, meditate, practise mindfulness and look after ourselves. I don’t know whether people are returning in large numbers to communities of prayer. But is prayer sufficient? Is that where we’ve got to: accepting we remain powerless to affect change and that our fortunes depend on divine power?

I’m guilty here of over-simplifying…

The mental health toll

Are mental health problems increasing is possibly the more apposite question?

Mind, the UK mental health charity, reports that the overall number of people reporting mental health problems has been going up in recent years but the periods they’ve looked at feel quite historic.

The number of people with common mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014, both among men and women. The percentage of people reporting severe mental health symptoms in any given week rose from 7% in 1993 to over 9% in 2014. It’s always worth bearing in mind that as research has improved, and more people have had the means to seek help and speak out about their mental health, we may simply be hearing about problems that a fairly fixed proportion of the population historically always felt.

And yet…

Monitoring from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the prevalence of moderate or severe depressive symptoms among adults in Great Britain rose after the start of the pandemic. In surveys taken between July 2019 and March 2020 prevalence was 10%, but this rose to 19% by June 2020 and 21% by January to March 2021. By July to August 2021, the proportion of adults with moderate or severe depressive symptoms had fallen to 17%, still, a rate much greater, of course, than that recorded before March 2020 when the pandemic began.

There are coaches and therapists who talk about the phenomenon of ‘burnout‘ and how this has accelerated throughout the pandemic. There are people working ever harder at home; the boundaries between their work and home lives are blurring. Parents can burn out and feel conflicted or guilty, wondering whether they’ve done enough and whether they’ve got all the resources they need for the stress they have to cope with. Herbert Freudenberger & Gail North identified the concept of burnout in the 1970s and assigned it 12 stages of development and experience. This Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s worth looking at and appraising its personal relevance.

For children and young people, issues relating to mental health are no less urgent. A 2021 survey of children and young people’s mental health found that 17.4% of children aged 6-16 had a probable mental disorder in 2021, up from 11.6% in 2017. Among those aged 17-19, 10.1% had a probable mental disorder in 2017, rising to 17.4% in 2021. Rates remained similar between 2020 and 2021.

What on earth is going on?

Maybe Covid-19 only provides us with a partial answer. The damage the pandemic has caused has intensified, and not on its own driven, this crisis in population mental health.The damage the pandemic has caused has intensified, and not on its own driven, this crisis in population mental health.The damage the pandemic has caused has intensified, and not on its own driven, this crisis in population mental health.

I won’t rehearse what everybody already knows. The climate emergency, the crisis in capitalism, addictive technologies, unregulated social media, and populist politics: these factors and many besides are having an adverse influence, particularly on young people. The atomisation of society and the number of people in advanced liberal democracies reporting loneliness has been well-documented. Loneliness can take societies down a dark path.

I know I have found myself a victim of these influences, like many others who have felt victim to social media and apps. I have scrolled endlessly, wasted countless hours checking how I fit in, how I compare, seeking validation, and losing myself down a rabbit hole of Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Grindr, Twitter, and many other updates.

There was one occasion in January where I could truly say I became discombobulated after too many hours on social media and apps. I zoned out and then felt quite unwell. And I’m a man of 40 years old. Not a good look!

A separate blog post, or series of blog posts, would need to interrogate these wider influences on the UK population’s mental health and well-being (or indeed any other population). Vast sums of money are being spent on social research to consider some of the causes of ill mental health and the increased rates of depression and anxiety among younger segments of the population. I can’t do justice to the topic here, but I do think there are long-term influences at play, and all the pandemic has done is crystallise or intensify some of the pressures people were already feeling: insecurity, ambiguity about our future, and a lack of control over the world and our contribution to it.

You’ve gotta have hope

‘You’ve got to have hope’, argued gay politician, Harvey Milk. He continued: ‘politicians have to give people hope.’

But what if politicians are only offering hope built out of sand? Hope that feels like a wing and a prayer? Like some current government statements on how we can all live with the Coronavirus – is that the hope we need?

I think we need real hope right now.

What is our ‘North Star’? Where do we get that hope from?

I still like to focus on the positives in the world. Positive News and Good News Shared are just two sites that offer a wonderful corrective to the drain that is the current news media. They’re not hyping up good news. They’re reminding us that the world – our local communities – are full of positive news stories, if only we cared to take notice.

As I’ve written before on this blog, I think as the world overwhelms us, we have to sometimes look more locally for inspiration – we should focus on the few things we can influence or control.

In his 1977 ‘You’ve Got to Have Hope’ speech, Harvey Milk, said this:

Each of those people has his or her [handwritten] own hopes and aspirations, his or her [handwritten] own viewpoints and problems. Each of them contributes something unique to the life of the city. What they contribute, we call the “quality of life.” Friends talking across fences, the baseball players in the playground on Sunday, old ladies tottering down the street hand-in-hand, the smile from a passing stranger. [This is what’s important, was the inference].

What I like about this passage is that it reminds me of the small things in everyday life that matter so much. They don’t cure cancer and they won’t solve the climate emergency, but they do instil everyday hope and joy. How we live our lives, and how the people around us conduct their lives, isn’t insignificant to our day-to-day wellbeing. These everyday social relations are the social glue that bind us and keep an otherwise uncertain world just about manageable. Stopping to smell flowers as we walk down our street won’t remove our debts or improve our relationships. If we accumulate these small joys, and count them, however, focusing on the joy they give us in the present, we may well become more rooted in what’s worth noticing about the world, and remove some of the danger or anomie we feel. Oliver Burkeman has written about the need to relentlessly focus on our present, and not just nostalgize our past, or indeed ruminate about our future.

As a narratives coach, I focus on the stories we tell ourselves. Which stories serve us as we try to lead a balanced or contented life? Which stories no longer serve us? Which stories might we write instead? How we can change the story we use to describe our life, to ourselves more than anyone else?

I’m not here to provide false hope or to dismiss or trivialise people’s deepest grief, anxieties and frustrations. Many people are truly suffering right now.

What I can be is human, relating to everyone who feels life is a struggle as we apparently ‘exit’ the pandemic.

I can provide empathy and solidarity. Incidentally, I believe experiencing empathy in excess can be debilitating, and that too needs looking at, if we’re to lead a balanced life, where we’re not forever thrown off course by world events.

We can work together to address your world as it is, what isn’t working, and what could work if only we paid a bit more attention.

It’s not easy. Financial constraints mean coaching can remain out of reach for people. I get that.

Coming to terms with a confusing world – one that seems to grow ever more confusing – is not easy. Change never is.

But COACHING can be vital, I’d argue if we want to find some kind of ‘normal’ in a very abnormal world. Coaching, of course, isn’t the only solution! I would never suggest it was.

But this Mental Health Awareness Week, it can make sense to consider its value, and whether it might make sense for you.

Please reach out at andrew.j.kaye82@gmail.com for more information on my coaching.

Mental health resources

Please note there are many helplines and free materials out there if you need professional help for depression, anxiety or connected feelings.


Rethink Mental Illness

Citizens Advice


National Debt Adviceline


Mental Health Foundation 

Cruse Bereavement Care


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