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Easing of lockdown restrictions a boost to mental health, says expert

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Siobhan O'Neill

Siobhan O'Neill

Siobhan O'Neill

A mental health expert has said the latest easing of lockdown measures announced by the Executive this week are a welcome boost in terms of psychological wellbeing.

Siobhan O'Neill, Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University's Psychology Research Institute, said the relaxation of social distancing measures, which provided good news for churches, hairdressers, schools and childcare providers, marks a positive step forward both mentally and economically.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph she said: "Being able to do things like making hair and nail appointments may seem small but they do make a difference as they boost our mood, help us feel good about ourselves and like we're contributing to the economy again.

"That's the big worry coming out of this pandemic, that the economic impact means people might lose their jobs.

"There's a lot of fear around that, so being able to go out and contribute by supporting local businesses is something that we can all do."

Professor O'Neill says while there is still anxiety around the potential for a second wave of Covid-19, it's a matter of striking a balance between the physical health risk of the virus and the mental health consequences of the lockdown.

"We've got to trust that the epidemiologists and scientists who have been studying the virus are giving us guidance that's designed to keep us safe and that we follow the official advice around physical distancing," she said.

"People will be anxious at the prospect of everyone going back out into society again and we need to recognise that.

"It's important that we continue to have accurate information about the level of risk and how to reduce it by modifying our behaviour."

She praised Stormont's First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill for conveying clear messages to the public over recent weeks around staying safe.

But Professor O'Neill acknowledged that there is still a level of ambiguity around one aspect of the restrictions. She said: "While it is great that we can go to see our hairdresser, it's also important to know when we can see our families again and what kind of interactions we can have with them.

"For many people that's much more important than things like getting back to the pubs.

"We need more clarity around the reasons for this and so we can trust that the guidance we are being given is really for our own benefit and to protect vulnerable people from getting this virus.

"I was concerned about the fact that the schools and childminders weren't opening and that was causing significant mental health problems, particularly for our young people.

"These are all really difficult issues and it was getting to the stage where some people were really starting to suffer.

"Most people have adapted okay to all of this and the data shows while there was anxiety, they got used to it very quickly.

"But there were some others who were vulnerable and we now need to look at what the effect of that lockdown has had on them and get the interventions in place to support them."

She added: "That's going to be really important moving forward."

Belfast Telegraph