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Can you see me? Can you hear me? COVID 19, Social Distancing and Mental Health

Me, anxiety and a PhD. I wish I had a space to share.

As I await my PhD viva, I am as anxious as can be for reasons that I cannot explain, because up until a few weeks ago, I was still checking my email several times a day to see if a viva date has been set, so anyone would think that finally knowing the date and time will comfort my anxious nerves. It did not. However, anxiety is something that I am all too familiar with, from being an international student who had to quit her studies because she was unable to pay the tuition fees, applying and waiting for a decision from all the scholarships without which I would not have studied for the last ten years; BSc, MSc and PhD, not least of all those few minutes before I checked my marks on Turnitin. Yes, the post-Turnitin mark time were some of the most anxious times of my academic life, but nothing prepared me for the times when I eventually summoned the courage to check my marks only to find that I failed or scored less than I expected. It was precisely these experiences and my interactions with other university students that informed my decision to start the campaign to Raise Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education, @RAMHHE.

So, thinking back to the last ten years, I wish that I had a space at uni where I could visit when I was in the academic rot, head bowed down in shame and shoulders curved forward, the heartbeats aligned with pounding headaches and tears that refused to drip for fear of being seen as weak. Yes, I wish I had space where I could share my experiences of what I refer to as 'academic nightmares'; those non-stop dreams of unsubmitted assignments, half-written essays and the second level of dream where I am drowning in books and the word Turnitin floating around in my mind's eyes.

As I ruminated about the last ten years of my studies, I remembered a question that my friend @BrendaPoku asked me a few weeks ago when I asked for viva tip. She wrote, 'I’d be interested in how your work can be useful during and after the pandemic. The answer to that question came easily to me, because you see, my PhD is about @TheDragonCafe. This informal community mental health service, which before the lockdown opened every Monday for anyone to attend, socialise and participate in the more than 13 free creative activities, such as gong bath, yoga, writing, mindfulness, dancing, and tai chi. Researching The Dragon Café provided me with a space where I socialised, interacted and participated weekly with more than 200 people, a space that I wish I had at uni. More importantly, as a mental health nurse, Brenda’s question got me to think about the increasing global reports of mental health challenges as a result of COVID19 and social distancing. Thus, my thoughts about ‘a space to share’ soon became much more than a mental health café within an academic setting.

It is COVID 19, social distancing and us….I wish we had more spaces to share

Suddenly, I was thinking about the need for more mental health cafes where people can visit to meet, socialise and interact with others who share similar experiences of mental health challenges as a result of COVID 19 and social distancing. Indeed, my findings indicate that people with mental health challenges enjoy benefits of reduced social isolation and loneliness, increased intended and unintended peer to peer support, and acquire learning and vocational skills through participation in creative activities, volunteering and paid jobs. However, I also found that there is limited availability of such spaces. Thus, with so many people with mental health challenges in the UK and around the world currently socially isolated as a result of the lockdown, I wish there were more spaces for a population that will soon come out of lockdown, with very limited spaces to share their experiences of COVID 19 and social distancing, which are embroidered in the fabrics of our mental health.

I write about a world that was not so long ago mostly silent on the streets, but noisy in our minds due to the uncertainties that surround the future of the ‘new normal’, with most of us resorting to the use of technology for communication with similar questions, such as; can you see me, can you hear me?

The question is, where will people with mental health challenges go to share their experiences of COVID 19, social distancing and mental health?

That question is open to several answers and interpretations, but my thoughts are about the state of global mental health. Therefore, while governments and policymakers are working hard to expand healthcare provision through the increase in the numbers of hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPEs) and the workforce, this is an urgent call for them to also consider informal community mental health services; where people with mental health challenges can attend to meet people, socialise and share their experiences of COVID 19 and social distancing. It is important to note here that I also acknowledge the increasing reports of physical health challenges, such as cancer, so my suggestions here in no way undermine the existence of such health challenges. However, with any form of health status, there is a likelihood of comorbidity with mental health challenges and vice versa. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the UK government to uphold the Health and Social Care Act (2012) “Parity of esteem” and ensure that mental health and physical health are valued equally to receive equal attention and funding, by establishing informal community mental health services that are open to all irrespective of their health status. Hopefully, in such a space we would not need to ask the question; can you see me, can you hear me?

Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi is a registered mental health nurse, PhD student at the University of Nottingham and a lecturer at the University of East London.

Josephine’s PhD was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and supervised by Professor Paul Crawford, Professor Stephen Timmons, and Dr Nicola Wright at the University of Nottingham.

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