‘I struggled to cope’: over-50s in UK describe Covid’s toll on mental health | Mental health

As UK society began to shut down in March 2020, the uncertainty around the future…

‘I struggled to cope’: over-50s in UK describe Covid’s toll on mental health | Mental health

As UK society began to shut down in March 2020, the uncertainty around the future began to get to Tina Flintham. “I felt totally not in control. You just didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Flintham, 61, from Rotherham, is one of many who found the pandemic brought mental health challenges. She experienced high levels of anxiety, especially as she had elderly parents in poor health. “Every morning I would wake up stressed, wondering if I, my partner or parents would get Covid or die,” she says. “A very close friend’s husband died with Covid [early on] – it really brought home how bad it was.”

‘I struggled to cope’: over-50s in UK describe Covid’s toll on mental health | Mental health
Tina Flintham

Research has found that in late 2020, British people in their 50s and early 60s were dealing with higher levels of psychological distress than they had ever experienced before in adulthood. For many over-50s, the pandemic triggered a “second midlife crisis”, with women worst affected.

Flintham, who is now retired, had been through a period of depression in her mid-50s, which she attributes to the menopause. “I was very low but I managed to carry on working. It was a physical feeling of [being] down and went on for three months. I was at the point of thinking go to the doctor, but then it just went.” She says she “gritted her teeth” and got through it, adding that she has always relied on exercise.

But lockdown brought new challenges for Flintham, who worked for the local authority at the time. “I’ve always been a very sociable person, always meeting up with friends, doing yoga and swimming, but I had none of that to help me through. I really missed swimming – I even dreamt about it.” She found taking walks in the nearby countryside was a “godsend” in coping with the stress.

The turning point for her mental health came with the vaccine rollout and as society opened up. While much of the anxiety began to dissipate, she still feels its echoes. “Sometimes I wake up and have similar feelings about what today is going to bring. I lost my confidence; I don’t go out half as much as I used to, [and] I have to push myself to. Once I’m out, I’m fine, but before I never even thought things like that. Also, being in confined spaces with lots of people – I still feel weird about that.”

Mark Dawes
Mark Dawes

Although Mark Dawes, 60, had experienced bouts of mild to moderate depression before, he was always able to cope by “forcing” himself to socialise and stay active. But when the London-based charity worker lost his father on the second day of lockdown, his grief blurred into depression for months.

“I had to deal with the grief alone – even the funeral had to be fully virtual as it was not possible to travel,” he says. “Living alone was very isolating and all social life was stopped – and relying on public transport meant I could not even travel to go walking in the nearby countryside.”

While he has experienced psychologically challenging periods before, this time, “the isolation felt very different”. “It all ground to a halt. Then you had the pandemic itself, which was pretty scary when it started off. It was a blur of days with no events in them. I was living, but not really living.”

About a year into the pandemic, Dawes began to undergo cognitive behavioural therapy, and with the “loosening” of the pandemic started to feel better. But he says there has been a lasting impact, including not being able to properly grieve for his father. “I don’t enjoy life as much as I used to. I look forward to things less – life’s a bit greyer.”

The pandemic also landed a blow to those who had never dealt with mental health difficulties before. In the early months of lockdown, Sally (not her real name), in her early 60s, developed severe anxiety and low mood for the first time in her life. “I was completely taken by surprise as I have never suffered with these issues before. I spent large parts of the day in tears.

“Everyday tasks became difficult and, over time, I found it hard to face people. At night-time I shook, had hot flushes, bad dreams and struggled to sleep.”

Sally, who is retired and lives in the east Midlands, became very fearful of Covid. “When some restrictions began to be relaxed I struggled to cope with seeing people, even in the garden. I didn’t feel able to go to public places such as shops. Each morning I woke up with a feeling of dread and sadness.”

By October 2020, she realised she needed help and began talking therapy over the phone. “In the end I decided I needed to face my fears and get back to some kind of normal life. I began by forcing myself to do things such as go into shops little by little: not something that I found easy,” she says, adding that returning to the gym was also important. “I no longer think about Covid every waking moment and I am finally beginning to enjoy life again.”