What do we mean when we talk about a ‘new normal’? That very much depends on who you’re talking to, I suppose. For many of us, lockdown didn’t look too different to everyday life pre-pandemic, marked as it was by isolation, anxiety and insecurity.
What perhaps was unusual was the clear focus on structural issues. Both lockdown and the pandemic itself were clearly responsible for loss of work and poor mental health, for the feeling that the ground was giving way beneath our feet. And it was talked about as such: many, many articles and news stories looked at the potential impact of coronavirus on pretty much every facet of our lives.
This was quite different to the way we normally talk about mental health and work. The discourse around mental health and illness over the last few years has been frustratingly narrow and increasingly individualised, with talking and conversations on the whole favoured by the mainstream over discussions about neoliberalism, austerity, poverty, injustice and marginalisation. Talking about our mental health can obviously be hugely freeing, as can conversations about self-care and ways of coping.
But, for me, it was not a surprise that such angles took precedence over everything else, both in the media and by savvy politicians who realised that ‘mental health’ was something they were suddenly supposed to care about. To illustrate the point, an example from my own life: a few years ago, I tweeted about a crisis I had only just emerged from, picking up a few retweets and encouraging replies.
One such reply was from a Conservative Party MP, who wanted to congratulate me and “highlight the importance of mental health”. He’d also voted against paying higher disability benefits and for a reduction in overall spending on benefits nearly 30 times in three years, the irony of which didn’t seem to register with him. You, too, can be an inspirational story of recovery… as long as you never cost the taxpayer anything.
What worries me is that this focus on the structural will either disappear or won’t delve deep enough into the realities of poverty. It’s horrifying that so many people have lost jobs or are struggling with their finances, and it seems obvious to me that mental health will take a subsequent nosedive for many people – even those who have never been ill before.
This, in turn, will make it even harder for people to find work. Finding a job, even outside of a recession, is hard work itself – you have to find jobs to apply for, spend hours polishing your CV, writing cover letters, filling in application forms (and preparing for interviews if you’re lucky). The work that is available is increasingly temporary or gig economy-related, where low pay, irregular shifts and poor labour rights rule the day. That in turn impacts mental health – and you find yourself at the beginning of the cycle once more.
As many of us know first hand, there is also a penalty for being mentally ill when it comes to services; a 2019 study from Citizens’ Advice found that when poor mental health reduces someone’s ability to carry out daily activities, it can end up costing them £1,100 to £1,550 a year. This desperately needs to change.
That old slogan of solidarity, “an injury to one is an injury to all”, has always resonated with me as a way of thinking about the user-led movement – far more than “we’re all in this together”, which like the Tory MP congratulating me on surviving, is just a bland lie told by people who have more power than we could possibly imagine and no intention of ceding it. We deserve a world that isn’t just equal but is just – and we can and should keep fighting for that with all we have.