On the 3rd February, it was announced that Dr Alex George, a contestant from the 2018 series of Love Island, was appointed as the ‘Ambassador for Mental Health’. While the move may reverse some of the PR damage that influencers have experienced recently and might be a positive use of someone in the public eye, how dangerous is it to be conflating mental health issues with the pandemic?

Raising awareness for mental health and removing some of the barriers to people talking to one another is useful. But if the reason for poor mental health is part of the structure of society, such as the inability to find a job, having to use a food bank, worrying whether you’ll be able to provide for your children, then no amount of awareness will change anything. There’s no use being convinced to talk about your struggles unless there is a systemic change to stop the struggles from occurring.

The appointment of the Love Island contestant came as a result of Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, suggesting how much of a toll the pandemic would have on children and young people. The provisions are unable to meet the demand, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. But things were far from perfect before COVID-19.

One of the main points of those opposed to lockdowns has been that it would harm mental health. But attaching the mental health crisis to the pandemic, the upheaval of ‘normal life’ and the negative impact people have felt due to the necessary measures to deal with the pandemic is reductionist to the factors in society and the lives of young people that might contribute to negative mental health.

It was reported in January that a mother took her own life in 2019 after her weekly payments were reduced from £228 to £60. This story is not dissimilar to countless others which span over the last few years where parents, who when pushed to breaking point, resort to drastic action.

While mental health issues may be temporarily higher due to COVID-19, many structures of government exacerbate these issues, pandemic, or no pandemic.

Indeed, Nadine Dorries MP was appointed as Minister of State for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety in 2019 as a response to the growing epidemic of a different nature. As the waiting list for counselling grew, so did the time it would take to see someone. 

The usual target time of six weeks that 90% of mental health patients wait for their first session of counselling was often paired with an extra wait of 28 to 90 days before receiving their second session. Even if all second sessions took place within those 28 days, 10 weeks is still a long time to wait to tackle urgent mental health issues. These issues were reported on before the pandemic even began.

Much like the high street, the cash-starved NHS, and digital poverty, the pandemic didn’t create the issue of long waiting times and waiting lists, it just shone a light on them. The system was already buckling in many places before the extra strain of the pandemic was added.

Income inequality, the housing crisis, uncertainty due to Brexit, and the culture war – together forming a perfect cocktail of mental strife – were present long before COVID-19 took hold. The pandemic only exacerbated what was already happening and acted as a catalyst for these slow-burn issues finally coming to a head.

It was policy, not pandemic, that led to so many students seeking help in September when they were ‘tricked’ into committing to staying in university housing only to discover they could have stayed at home. It was policy and governmental choice, not the pandemic, that dawdled with lockdowns, thus ensuring the crisis lasted longer.

It was the government’s slow rollout of the failed test, track, trace, isolate programme that led to a dizzying second wave.

Many people have been inadequately supported. But, looking at other countries, this isn’t a cause of the pandemic, it’s a cause of the government. The pandemic may have provided the platform, but the government’s lack of support for the self-employed, for instance, and industries such as hospitality, events, and the arts, was a decision they came to.

Mental health and mental wellbeing are too often conflated. One is a deep-rooted issue, we often hear of people being unhappy underneath the surface despite living happy lives. Short-term mental wellbeing has been affected by the pandemic and lockdowns, but for many, it will revert to normal the second ‘normality’ begins to return.

The mental health trumpet has often been used by COVID-sceptics, anti-maskers, and those opposed to lockdowns. While some may be doing so genuinely, there is a lot of piggybacking onto serious issues because people aren’t getting their way. People are using the genuine plight of those with poor mental health as an excuse to hide behind because they just want to go to the pub.

Many of these anti-lockdown types would have previously proudly told people to ‘man up’, ‘pull themselves together’, and ‘get over it’, in the face of a depressive episode brought on by nothing but the chemicals in the sufferer’s brain. Mental health is important to them when it can be used as an invisibility cloak.

Many don’t care – but think saying as such will help them return to normal faster. To conflate mental health and the pandemic, without looking at issues that occurred beforehand, is a disservice to those with mental health issues and may cause more people to be silent about issues they have when they don’t have environmental factors making them worse.

To conflate mental health issues with the pandemic is to assume they will clear up as soon as we are ‘back to normal’. Calls of sympathy for those struggling may be replaced by puzzlement – ‘what’s wrong with you now, everything’s back to normal.’

Not only will this not help those who have been struggling for longer than 2020, but it could mean many won’t speak out when they feel they don’t have a societally justified reason for feeling bad. It will also mean that the causes of mental health issues before the pandemic won’t be addressed.

There is a big difference between having bad mental health because of a temporary global pandemic and having bad mental health because the barriers placed to lifting yourself out of poverty have been laid there by the government, for example.

Appointing Dr Alex may help to draw attention to mental health issues, but the pandemic should be a footnote. Mental health issues occurred before the pandemic and they will occur after it.

To assign the pandemic with 100% of the blame for the growing mental health crisis ignores the systemic failures and cruelty doled out by the government over the last decade.

Cover image: gdsteam via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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