My fear of re-engaging with what used to be normal life - Euan McColm

A friend sends a text asking what I’m doing on October 6. I don’t have to check my diary. I’m not doing anything. I’m never doing anything.

When the pandemic hit, I stopped doing things. So did you. Whatever the fabric of our lives was, it was picked bare.

My friend replies. October 6 being free, how would I like to join her in a box at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?

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As lights at the ends of tunnels go, the prospect of seeing two of my favourite performers in one of the nation’s greatest venues, is a bright one. The stuff of life is back; the things we stopped doing are now becoming possible again.

A full crowd fill the seats ahead of the Royal Albert 150th Anniversary Concert at Royal Albert Hall on July 19, 2021. Picture: Joe Maher/Getty ImagesA full crowd fill the seats ahead of the Royal Albert 150th Anniversary Concert at Royal Albert Hall on July 19, 2021. Picture: Joe Maher/Getty Images
A full crowd fill the seats ahead of the Royal Albert 150th Anniversary Concert at Royal Albert Hall on July 19, 2021. Picture: Joe Maher/Getty Images

A few hours after the lift of the Cave/Ellis invitation, I’m sitting in our front room, looking up trains to London when I’m seized by a familiar sensation. It’s same tingling in the legs I get when obliged to look down from a great height. It’s an entirely involuntary physical reaction to fear.

This time, my fear isn’t falling from a cliff, it’s re-engaging with what used to be normal life.

I’m hardly unique. I’m sure some of you feel the same.

We all have things we took for granted before the first lockdown last year. It was difficult and stressful to adapt to life without them, wasn’t it? The loss of these privileges made us long for them all the more. For me, it was live music. After almost four decades of regular gig-going, to be deprived of the pleasure of live music was agonising. Soon, the prospect of going to a concert became a flickering candle of hope.

So why, now that I’m to get what I’ve wanted for the last 17 months, does the prospect fill me with such dread? Why am I experiencing feelings I thought I’d shaken off?

A year or so ago, I wrote here about my anxiety over Covid, about sleepless nights and catastrophic thoughts of contracting and succumbing to the virus, so I know all there is to know about dread. But I thought I had moved past that stage.

Key to my improved mood was the vaccine. The first jag was like a massage, loosening tense muscles and improving my posture. After the second jag, I was more optimistic still.

But this lift in spirits did not prompt changes in my newly adopted routine. I continued to follow all the advice on protecting myself and others, strictly limiting contact with friends and family, and all the while telling myself that this would all be over in no time.

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Now that destination sharpens into view and I’m suddenly hesitant.

So many of us feel this way that the NHS has produced a fairly extensive document containing 11 pieces of advice for anyone struggling with the lifting of lockdown conditions.

Balancing the first two tips - move at your own pace and don’t avoid things entirely - would seem to me to be crucial to making progress. Advice on talking about one's feelings, finding time to relax, and creating routines wherever possible is also valuable.

It’s important to keep some perspective, here. The anxiety I’ve felt in recent days is not so powerful that it will prevent me from being in the Royal Albert Hall but for others the impact of the pandemic will be far greater.

I wonder whether the Scottish NHS will cope with the inevitable increase in demand for mental health services.

In a “think piece”, published last July, the Principal Medical Officer in the Scottish Government’s Mental Health Directorate, Dr John Mitchell, wrote that, pre-Covid, rising pubic demand for mental health treatment was outstripping supply. He went on to predict an eight per cent worsening of the incidence of mental health disorders.

Announcing her budget earlier this year, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said mental health funding would exceed £1.1billion to help cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

This sounds an impressive sum but is it anywhere near enough? The Royal College of Psychiatrists reports a leap in the number of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) during the pandemic and complains of a lack of funding to deal with them.

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There are huge challenges for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in dealing with what looks to be a growing mental health crisis. There is also an opportunity.

In recent years, politicians of all parties have been talking about mental health in a way that, for too long, they didn’t. Times have changed, stigma has eroded, and every party leader wants us to know that they know how important mental health provision is. This is heartening, of course, but it also exposes the dismal truth that for all the years politicians didn’t talk about it, mental health, provision for those in need of help was inadequate. You could, I think, argue that, since it was founded in 1948, the NHS has never provided mental health care support that could be considered fit for purpose.

There is no former glory to which mental health services can be returned. This being so, Sturgeon should begin building a modern system of mental health support that works. Let’s see some real NHS reform that means the facilities and staff required to deliver on political promises are in place.

We will be paying the price for coronavirus for a long time. Instinctively, politicians will focus on the economy. If she is wise, Nicola Sturgeon will never lose sight of the fact that tackling the mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic is a necessary part of any meaningful recovery.

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