Irish Times mental health survey: We are recovering from a 'mass trauma event'

AuthorJoanne Hunt
Publication Date12 February 2022
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
"Reduce close human contact. That is how the virus is spread." In his speech to the nation on St Patrick's Day 2020, that's what taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked us to do. In a pandemic, we would have to, "social distance", said the WHO. Our lives and the lives of others might depend on it

Signage, queues, stewarding, face masks, hand gel, PPE, school, college and childcare closures, working from home, Zoom, "cocooning", cancellations, travel bans and visitor restrictions slowly reprogrammed how we lived and and how we loved. Commuters, joggers, singers, visitors, the postman, single mothers at the supermarket with kids, teenagers, colleagues, team mates, classmates, friends, even our grandchildren were a potential threat. To a pregnant friend, immunocompromised brother, or a parent, we were the threat. "Come together as a nation by staying apart" – for almost two years, in an unprecedented health emergency, that is what we did.

Then suddenly, overnight on the night of January 24th, 2022, with little warning, it was "over". With the rate and severity of infection reduced, we didn't need to keep our distance any more. Our collective efforts saved many thousands of lives, Taoiseach Michael Martin told the nation, as the country opened up. It was "time to be ourselves again", he said. But after two years of distance and loss, can we ever be ourselves again?

An Irish Times survey of mental health professionals in Ireland reveals that many of us are changed by the experience of the past two years. Some of us are hurting badly. Responses to the survey from members of the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), the Irish Council for Psychotherapy (ICP), the Psychological Society of Ireland show that demand for counselling and therapy services has doubled or trebled in the past two years.

Therapists in some parts of the country cannot meet demand and worry for those they are turning away. Some therapists themselves are burnt out. The responses from more than 130 psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors provide a snapshot of how living through a pandemic has impacted people of all ages, including mental health professionals themselves.

Galway-based psychotherapist Kate Kearney describes the effect of the pandemic on us as a "collective trauma". "Trauma is anything that shakes our sense of self. The sense of what we believe to be sure about the world, it was rocked for everyone right at the same time," says Kearney. Many trying to keep down a job, homeschool children, run a household and care for others while trying to keep Covid-free have had little time to process the extraordinary events in real time. Others feared stopping to do so might destabilise them. As the country and the world emerges, emotions pushed to one side are now being processed.

Restrictions in hospitals and nursing homes meant loved ones died without family at their side. Changed funerals meant the usual grieving rituals couldn't take place. One therapist speaks of a client prevented by restrictions from holding her dying mother's hand. "She says she will never get over it and in a sense, we can't give that back to her. I think there is a quality to this exit [from restrictions] for those who are bereaved, it is a bit like they are really forgotten now." Another speaks of a clients' trauma from giving birth alone.

Dublin-based psychotherapist and trauma consultant Johnny Moran describes the pandemic as a "mass trauma event" in which everyone reacted differently. "The nature of trauma is that people go into survival mode in the trauma, but like an earthquake, the mental health damage comes in the aftershock. This will become more prevalent as the pandemic fades."

The impact of the pandemic on young people is a legacy that mental health services will deal with for decades to come, therapists say. Studies show an increase in young people suffering from declining mental wellbeing. Worry, anxiety, depression and concerns over missing their friends and school emerged in one UK and Ireland study of 2,000 young people. In one Dublin paediatric hospital, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) increased by 180 per cent in November 2020 compared with previous years. This data is echoed by respondents to our survey.

Psychoanalytical psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor, who works with children and adolescents, says they have suffered immeasurably from restrictions. He has seen a ten-fold increase in requests for support. "The impact of mask wearing, pods, school closures and missed developmental opportunities are not visible due to the pervasive nature of the impact of the societal changes. Developmental delay is not visible immediately, if we fail to recognise this we will be making a huge mistake."

Schools and childcare facilities that closed for "at least two weeks" on March 12th, 2020 didn't reopen again until September. On breaking for Christmas that year, children didn't fully return...

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