Mental health in an unequal world: a reflection for World Mental Health Day

There is very little doubt in anyone’s mind that the pandemic has exposed the fragility and inequalities built into our society and our mental health services. People on low incomes, living in areas of high social deprivation suffered the consequences of the pandemic much more than more well-off families who could usually rely on their salary being paid through the furlough scheme.

For some people, the pandemic provided a welcome rest from the daily commute and usual time pressures which often left too little time for family togetherness. Suddenly people had time to relax, to reflect on their lives and relationships with some finding a new feeling of peace, which benefitted both parents and children.

On the other hand, families who were already living close to the edge, for example, families where the parent had a pre-existing mental health condition, found themselves without the usual support systems and struggling to manage their own mental health. Without support, too many ended up in crisis, and even being hospitalised, and even those who managed to hold it together, lived in fear of getting the virus and losing their income. We discovered that many of the families we work with were living in cramped conditions, with no quiet space to study or have a private conversation. Many lived in multi-generational households, with parents who were doing low paid, insecure work, such as care or delivery drivers and some who worked in hotels and catering who instantly lost their income.

The combined impact of social deprivation, mental ill-health, insecure employment, and the lockdown put huge stress on a fragile system. Pre-pandemic, the families relied on their extended family and a local network of support, to keep the show on the road. Suddenly the children were home all day, not able to go out or do any kind of activity other than to go for a walk with their siblings and parent, something every teenager dreads! We found that there were families who didn’t have internet access or devices with which to do their online schoolwork or take advantage of the virtual support offered by various youth charities, such as ours.

Charities like Our Time provided much-needed support to vulnerable families. We were able to adapt our workshops from face to face to virtual meetings and we succeeded in keeping most of our families and those that found it difficult to do zoom have now come back enthusiastically to the face-to-face meetings. Being thought about in this way was a lifesaver for many parents who struggled with their own mental health and found it really challenging to also support their children’s mental health. As always, the children adapted more quickly and easily than the adults and some children who were shy and quiet in the workshops suddenly found their voice and became active in the zoom sessions in a way that revealed their personalities in all the colours.

We are immensely proud of the families who kept joining in and supporting each other and the children through the darkest days of the lockdowns. For example, a parent who is a frontline NHS worker, tuned into the weekly zoom session during her break, from the locker room.

“It was so useful and so good over lockdown. Online, we still had the connections and it looked after the children’s mental health and gave them an outlet. I was hearing the news talking about children’s mental health, and I thought it’s great that here’s an organisation that is actually doing something during the lockdown”.