Many of the unpleasant by-products of this rotten year are easy to see: masks abound, streets are quieter and many, many pubs, restaurants and shops are shut. But another consequence of 2020, the one I fear the most, cannot be seen. Like the virus itself, it stays hidden away inside us – out of sight but never out of mind.
I am talking about the potentially devastating damage to our mental health if the people of Britain are locked away over the winter, unable to participate in the simple things that make life worth living; seeing friends, holding loved ones and generally feeling hopeful about a brighter tomorrow.
It’s hard to consider, for example, the idiotic measures on ‘non-essential goods’ being rolled out in Wales, without concluding that those in charge are getting the balance disastrously wrong. Likewise, the suggestion of banning people from separate households from meeting outside feels so inhumane and so thoughtless, that it simply cannot have been devised by someone living alone in a small flat.
Yet putting aside, for a moment, the official response to the lockdown – suffice to say if we do not learn to talk to one another and share our struggles at this time, then the epidemic in depression and anxiety will have truly ruinous effects on society, on the economy, and on families.
In recent years, our healthcare system and occasionally our institutions have made some important steps towards acknowledging that poor mental health can destroy individuals and families as much as any virus. And public figures, from Prince William to Lady Gaga, have been admirably brave in talking about their experiences.
But we remain, as a nation, emotionally constipated in our ability to talk about the struggles that millions have faced, are facing, and will face before this pandemic is behind us. Of course, emoting endlessly about our feelings with no practical end in sight is counter-productive, and with our stiff upper lips and propensity to Keep Buggering On, we are hardly suited to being a nation of navel-gazers. But for the last 20 years, the number one killer in the UK for men and women aged 20-34 has been suicide. Suffering in silence is infinitely worse than oversharing.
Six years ago I tried to kill myself several times. I was completely beaten by depression, saw no joy, no future and no point in carrying on living. I nearly jumped in front of several tubes, prepared to jump off a tall building, contemplated overdosing on something horrible and (bizarrely, looking back now) would often cycle around London at night hoping to be hit by buses.
And while the fear that I may once again fall into the depths of such a personal Hell again has never really left me (and bubbles of despair occasionally waft up from the depths), I slowly got better and have been piecing my life back together ever since. There are still many amends to make, not to mention the unpayable debt to my beautiful mum who talked me down from the edge. But I am vastly luckier than the thousands of people who don’t get better and take their lives every year, not least because my employer understands and takes these issues seriously, and because I have an understanding group of friends and family.
Because of that, I have tried to speak candidly and calmly about the struggles I have had with the depression that almost killed me. As a former Government Special Adviser and Conservative Parliamentary candidate, my logic has been that if a big, ugly, hairy right-wing Brexiteer can talk openly about having been suicidal, it might make it easier for others to do the same.
As a result, over the past few years, dozens, possibly hundreds of people have got in touch privately to share their worries and fears. It’s tough to hear, sometimes unbearably so, but it does seem that the simple act of talking out loud about our struggles helps. By acknowledging our feelings, we can begin to define them, measure them and crucially, to understand that they have their limits. And treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy, not to mention medication, can alleviate acute cases.
Of course more funding from businesses and the Government to help those who particularly need to speak to professionals will help, too. But I fear that unless we collectively resolve to fight it, this winter could be shattering to the mental wellbeing of so many people who have already struggled through 2020. A national effort will be required to administer consolation to our fellow creatures in this dark hour.
So I am asking for you to take a minute to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while and remind them that you exist and care about them. And if you’re struggling through dark days as you read this, remember that it really will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright; then it isn’t the end.
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This piece was written for The Telegraph.