The original version of this article was first published in BBC News by George Herd.
“You might have to fight for it – but the support is out there, there is help – don’t give up.”
It is the overwhelming message of hope from Francesca Murphy, a 24-year-old student who has spent the Covid pandemic fighting her own mental health battles. She is just one of those who shared her lockdown wellbeing stories with BBC Wales News. They have all been touched by the virus – often in ways, they did not expect.
Sports science undergraduate Francesca said she knew her mental health was deteriorating not long before the pandemic was officially declared on 11 March, 2020. The World Health Organization made the announcement just two weeks after the very first case was identified in Wales, in Swansea, when a holidaymaker returned from a skiing trip in Italy.
Francesca had already experienced episodes of illness before, including dealing with the eating disorder anorexia. As the pandemic began to spiral out of control across Europe, she knew she was becoming ill again. A number of hospital admissions followed, and referrals to mental health services. And when the first lockdown kicked in – so did the anorexia.
“Everyone was quite panicky, I guess, in March and April time,” she explained.
“Everyone’s routine has changed for a start.
“And for those who struggle with eating issues, it had such a detrimental effect.”
Francesca is continuing to study for the final year of her degree remotely from her home in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, and frankly admitted: “I’d like to say that I’m better, but that’s far from the truth.” She said she was an individual who thrived on structure and certainties, getting outside and to the gym, and mixing with others. Lockdown after lockdown has stripped those certainties away. However, she remains positive. She is waiting for a place at a specialist eating disorders centre, and said the mental health support she has been receiving has been “fantastic”. But she and her family had to fight for the care and support she needed, she added.
“If you need extra support, if you need therapy, fight for it. Ask the GP, get your parents on board. If your families recognise the signs, they can ask for help too.
“Go out and fight for the help that is out there.”
Some 40 or so miles away down the road in Carmarthen, Siân Edwards has gone back to work this week. It’s a relief. For her, the weeks – then months – of Covid lockdown have been a strain. She experiences both depression and anxiety, and like Francesca, she has missed the structure of her life before lockdown – with a job as a youth worker and a school crossing patrol.
“When the virus first arrived, I thought it would fade away and wouldn’t amount to anything,” she recalled.
“And then of course we had lockdown, which immediately set off alarm bells: ‘Oh my god, how am I going to cope with my mental health’ kind of thing.
“If I’m stuck in my flat, if I’m not allowed to go anywhere, if I’m not going to see anyone face-to-face, how am I going to cope?”
Siân said without being able to bubble with her mother, and enjoy the family garden during the warm spring, she would most likely have “ended up in hospital”. But the continuing uncertainty about when restrictions will end, when the “new normal” will return – or what it will look like, plays on her mind.
“Normally at about three o’clock in the morning,” she said.
“I like to plan ahead, I’m not one for spontaneity.”
But she said the vaccination programme did offer hope that things would begin to change. And she was out on patrol, stopping traffic outside her school again this week, as foundation age classes started to return in Wales. “It was lovely to see all the children. I think they were quite happy to get back, and I think their parents were very happy to have them back.”
In Newport, Lorena Mihalcea is a full-time carer for her severely disabled sister Alisa. It has meant the 25-year-old has also been shielding throughout to protect Alisa, who has cerebral palsy and complex care needs. In a city with Wales’ third-largest population, Lorena describes the pandemic in one word: “Lonely.”
“It’s been almost a year since I’ve been quarantined completely. I did it willingly because I want to protect my sister, as she is very vulnerable.
“But this is getting all too much now. Covid has made it 10 times worse. You get frustrated, and you breakdown sometimes.”
She said she has found it difficult – almost impossible – to access respite care during the pandemic, especially as her 26-year-old sister requires a special blended food diet, which is an added complication. Lorena said there needs to be a change in policy in Wales to allow others to feed her sister, and she is still waiting for that to happen. However, after starting a business management degree, remotely, she is now getting some help with personal care at home for her sister. As the first anniversary of the first lockdown in Wales approaches, Lorena said she hoped 2021 would be a better year than 2020 – but she has yet to be convinced.
“Here we are now, still in the same situation as we were last year. I am sceptical – is this year going to a better time? Or should we hope that it will be the next one?”
Tom Morgan knows all about hoping for better years, and also hopes he can help others to get there. At 22, he hoped he was going to have a glittering career in rugby. He had already been capped for Welsh Students rugby league side, was captain of the Welsh Academicals RFC and had been signed to Cardiff RFC, when just a couple of games in for them he suffered a career-ending injury. “I slipped two discs in my back, and the doctors just said ‘you can carry on, but you may not be okay when you are a little bit older’, so I knocked it on the head,” said Tom, who is now 25. He said he was left feeling “anxious” and “searching for something – and I didn’t know what it was”. He found that “something” and is now a primary school teacher in Cardiff.
So when the pandemic hit, he decided to use his own experience of navigating mental wellbeing and his classroom talent to launch a podcast to help others. The concept of “Unlocking Your Mind” is simple, he chats with elite athletes about how they have overcome injury, defeat, or even retirement.
“I thought that really translated into something people were going through in lockdown,” said Tom.
“When the things they like doing, with the people they love, and then suddenly you can’t do those things – and what are you left with?
“So I set up the podcast and it aims at looking at mindsets of how we embark on challenges, how we perceive setbacks, and how we overcome failures.”
He has been fortunate to recently chat with rugby greats such as Australia scrum-half Will Genia, capped 110 times for his country, and the former Leeds Rhino’s captain Stevie Ward who retired from the game last month at 27, due to the long-term effects of concussion. Tom said that chat, in particular, was “hard” to listen back to because of Ward’s honesty about the end of his career. “But he also focused on how important it is to listen to your body, and that there is more to life than putting your goals and identity into one thing.” He said he hoped he could help others “unlock their own potential” in what has been such a difficult time for so many people.
The original version of this article was first published in BBC News.
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