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Mental health implications of coronavirus recession will be worse than lockdown - expert


Professor Siobhan O'Neill

Professor Siobhan O'Neill

Professor Siobhan O'Neill

A mental health expert has said the effects of a recession brought on due to coronavirus restrictions could have bigger implications for the psychological wellbeing of the nation than lockdown itself.

Professor Siobhan O'Neill of Ulster University said it is essential Northern Ireland emerges from lockdown in a timely manner and as quickly as possible so that the economy can be protected.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph's Coronavirus podcast, she said one of the biggest problems that could emerge in coming months is a recession if the economy collapses post-lockdown, resulting in wide-reaching implications in years to come.

"There are people for whom the emergence from lockdown is really important, not just for their mental health but in terms of the economy and jobs, getting people back to work," she said.

"One of the biggest problems that could result from this that would affect people's mental health is the recession. It's about emerging from lockdown in a timely way but also as fast as we can so we can protect the economy."

While many have been protected by job protection and assistance schemes brought forward by the government, this is not always enough, she said.

"If there are huge job losses and harsh austerity measures after this, that's really going to impact on the mental health of the population and there's going to be a cost to that as well.

"The next year or so needs to be managed very carefully to avoid austerity and job losses. Unemployment is a huge predictor of suicide rates and mental health problems in the population. We also need to avoid a second wave if we can. We need to trust that our leaders and their advisers are going to do the right thing."

There are higher rates of mental illness in Northern Ireland due to the legacy of the Troubles and trauma passed on to the next generation, she said. "We were already struggling to meet the needs of the population."

It means many people with existing mental health issues are struggling because they may be unable to access support services in the same way.

"A lot of mental health services are working hard to make sure appointments and systems are maintained. It can just make existing trauma related mental health illnesses worse. There are new mental health problems for people who are really suffering the effects of stress and anxiety and fear of Covid and lockdown."

However, for many the short-term stresses and anxieties of lockdown will have no effect, she said.

"There's more demand and there are more people who are stressed at the moment. Most people will be OK in the long term. Going through this kind of experience can help people build resilience, they know they can cope with change and adapt and be resilient."

News stories about people breaking lockdown restrictions can impact the mood of the nation, especially as the unified approach first shown in the early weeks of lockdown begins to wear off, she said.

"When there's news stories about people breaking lockdown, that can affect our mental health too because it makes us question our own behaviour and our own decisions and sacrifices.

"The longer this goes on, the more difficult this will be - there was an expectation at the start that this would be time-limited. Dates were really particularly important and now there's so much more uncertainty around that, it can be difficult to stabilise and know that it will end in some way."

The Belfast Telegraph Coronavirus podcast is on Spotify and Soundcloud.

Belfast Telegraph