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Healing from the collective and individual trauma. Examining the emotional effect of lockdowns: where are we now?

March 2024

person holding Covid sign, credit

Four years ago this month, the UK government imposed a “stay at home” mandate to stop the spread of Covid-19. A range of emotions were present at the time, from shock, fear and anger, to (for some) a quiet happiness. But what has been learnt about the emotional impact of limiting contact and connection? Were certain groups more affected than others? Personal circumstances and our socio-economic status have since shown to be key indicators of how our mental wellbeing has been affected. It was said at the time that we were “all in the same boat” – but it’s clear that the boat was either a luxury liner or a rowboat, or somewhere in-between. What is clear is that we were - and many still are - suffering from the trauma of restricting our access to one another. 

Researchers have concluded that certain groups’ mental wellbeing was detrimentally affected by lockdowns: younger people, females, migrants and those from BAME communities. Furthermore, if you were experiencing loneliness or financial difficulties, or were living in congested areas pre-lockdown, you were doubly affected.  Women were estimated to have twice the mental distress during the lockdowns – they bore the mental strain of the household, possibly working and caring for others along with the pressures of educating at home. 

Another group disproportionately shown to be affected were children and young people (CYP). Of the 10 million needing additional mental health support post-Covid, 1.5m are children under 18. Schools and universities closed.  Their lives stopped, for how long they had no clue. At least as adults we could see that the crisis would conclude at some point – CYP didn’t necessarily have this foresight. We forget how important schooling is, not just as a place to “learn”, but to socialise – to understand how to be in the world. Social and personal development will be stunted (just as it was for the children of WW2). But the message seems to be that they need to catch-up – wouldn’t it be more compassionate to realise the disadvantage this young generation has and work with them on their emotional and personal development – rather than attributing unnecessary stress and pressure to perform?  It’s no wonder that CYP mental health is in crisis with 1 in 5 reporting mental health difficulty. I see from my younger adult clients a real need to explore and grieve the losses of the lockdown years. It’s a loss for us all, but especially young people. 

Woman in green and white striped shirt wearing white mask looking out from behind bars. Credit

The inquiry into the actions of those in power started in June 2022, and at the time of writing continues to analyse the conduct and decision making of UK government and devolved assemblies. There are angry outbursts and attributing of blame, but are they detracting from the real work which needs to be done at a collective level of healing the trauma we went through as individuals and as a society? The period comes up time and again in my therapeutic work with clients – all having a unique story to tell about their experience. To hear these stories is a privilege and is hard, as we re-live our own experience of the time in parallel. But that is the work, of therapy, and it can be challenging to examine our reactions to a situation. But in examining, we heal. And we can learn what we need to do better as individuals and as a society - how we can consider our own wellbeing when faced with crises large and small.

As a therapist working with trauma, I hope lessons are learned and that the impact of “locking-down” on our mental wellbeing is considered for future pandemics and other crises – as much as the impact on our physical wellbeing is thought about.

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