Platform for Life, a counselling charity which specialises in helping families in disadvantaged communities, has been forming a picture of what life in lockdown is like, from speaking with clients and a range of people in the community. The picture that emerges is mixed, with a surprising number of positive stories. Our findings bring into sharp focus how challenging their world was before the lockdown started, and raises further questions about how society is not helping disadvantaged families with mental health issues.
To start with the less surprising findings, life in lockdown has been tough for some families with increased anxiety and depression for all the obvious reasons that are affecting all families. In addition, life difficulties have increased, including the basic one of getting enough food. In the course of our work, we encountered several families who had no food (we were able to arrange food parcels for them); some others had simply run out of money (we were able to signpost to a local fund). Other families were managing well enough with a brave face and stoical attitude.
However, and to our surprise, some families are feeling better under lockdown. The general reason seems to be that, to them, life outside the home is a hostile and anxiety-provoking place; to have a reason to stay at home and not engage is actually calming and simpler. There appears to be three main themes.
Firstly, there are those with general anxiety who feel the world has real dangers – danger of attack or sexual assault, for example. Such people have suffered trauma of all kinds and fear a repetition in the outside world on a daily basis. It is a fear that some may regard as irrational, as in daytime the neighbourhood may not be that unsafe. Trauma therapy can significantly improve this problem; however, in some deprived neighbourhoods, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between reasonable concerns about safety and “irrational” ones based on past traumatic experience. Much easier to give it all a wide berth.
Secondly, there are those with social anxiety for whom every foray into the outside world is a challenge. They may fear being judged as being inferior or being a failure, or fear that everyone knows about their life and the shame they carry. Having a reason to stay at home comes as a blessed relief.
Thirdly, there are those families where, for the children or the parents (or both), the closure of the schools has taken away a source of anxiety and conflict. Parents who experience an almost daily struggle to get children off to school – the “daily shouting match”, as one mother put it – no longer have to do so. And parents who consistently fail in that unwinnable battle no longer have to pay the fine they cannot afford. Children no longer have to fear the shame, the social conflict, the bullying and the lessons where they are too anxious to take much in. We do not have the data to fully explain why only 5% of disadvantaged families have taken up the offer of schooling during the lockdown, but we believe the above reasons are part of the mix.
We believe that addressing the underlying mental health problems of the family –the parent(s) especially – is crucial. And that is a cornerstone of what we do as a charity. But the world in which our families are forced to live presents anxieties at every corner. Can society not design a more supportive environment?
Perhaps we could start with schools. In disadvantaged communities, schools admirably bolt on a range of social functions to keep vulnerable families afloat. But the day job is to deliver a curriculum designed for the children of middle class, well-functioning families. Why not focus on the basics first – addressing the underlying traumas, enabling good mental health, good health and well-being, nutrition, relationships, healthy play, sport and age-appropriate life skills? Parents could be included in this wellbeing-focussed education.
All across the ship, this pandemic is forcing us to think differently. There is huge scope for a rethink in order to break the cycle of one generation of unstable, vulnerable families begetting the next generation – while society throws money in all the wrong directions. Let’s go back to something better than we had before.