Mental health champion Prof Siobhan O’Neill believes we are better mentally equipped to deal with this lockdown

A mental health expert has acknowledged that whilst there are undoubtedly additional challenges with the current lockdown, including the darker evenings and colder weather, we may now have the coping strategies to deal with them.

Saturday, 9th January 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 11th January 2021, 7:57 am
Professor Siobhan O'Neill

Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s interim mental health champion, said: “Whilst there are different challenges this time round, there are also things that we’ve learned from the first lockdown that mean this time might be easier.

“Many of us learned how to use online meeting facilities like Zoom and Skype - we are more familiar with those now and it’s less scary for us.

“A lot of people are into a system of working from home already so there isn’t that massive shift in transition.

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“We know more about the virus this time as well, so in my view we should be slightly less anxious.”

Ms O’Neill, professor of Mental Health Studies at Ulster University, said it’s important to stay focused on “the bigger picture”.

“Time does pass and we will get through this. The vaccine is there and we need to remember that this (current lockdown) is still a relatively short period of time, even though it is longer than we had hoped, and we have learnt about things that really matter in life.”

January is traditionally a bleak month, when people often struggle with post-Christmas money worries, or depression linked to the dark evenings.

She said: “There are issues around darkness, people do get more depressed in the winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder is the name for depression that people have at this time of year. Light is important for our mental health.

“But the stretch in the evenings is starting to happen, so that’s good, but it’s going to be a while, so we need to make sure we get light every day. And, of course, when it’s dark, it’s not as easy to exercise and we know exercise is really important for promoting physical and mental health, so we need to try and make an effort to exercise and schedule it during the day.”

Professor O’Neill added if people are worried about money “reach out and get help”.

“There’s so much can be done for people who are struggling financially with debt, there’s all sorts of arrangements that can be put in place if you get the right support, so don’t suffer it on your own - there’s agencies there to help.”

And for parents home-schooling, she added, “be kind to yourself”.

“There’s solid research showing that this has been a real struggle and it has affected the mental health of parents, particularly mothers.

“Don’t expect too much of yourself. Ask for flexibility and support from your employer and if you have a partner to help you then try and divide it up equally.

“Don’t worry about screen time. One of the surveys showed that that was a big concern, but there’s really no evidence showing that screen time over a few weeks now is going to make any difference to children’s mental health, as long as they are getting a bit of physical activity and it (screen time) is not interfering with their sleep.”

She added that whilst many people may have “settled into a new routine”, separation from loved ones is still difficult for many.

“There is still uncertainty about when this pandemic is going to end. It’s gone on for a lot longer than we had thought,

“It’s been an extended period of time (away from loved ones) and I think that is going to start to hit and the lack of certainty about when we will be able to meet again, and meet in groups.

“A lot of people are becoming ill with colds and things as well at this time of the year, which can make us feel miserable, so we must protect our physical health and try and eat properly and well.

“Many people go on diets in January, but I would say just eat well, eat a good balanced diet and don’t worry so much about weight, just make sure you are exercising.

“People have been using a lot of alcohol recently so try and restrict that a bit more if you can because it’s not good for us in the long run, it can lead to depression and problems in families.”

She concluded: “This is a short period of time in our lives, children are very resilient, we are resilient as well, we will get through it, It’s about self-compassion and self-kindness.”