It was at 1am, around two months into the UK’s first lockdown, that Joyce Taylor became convinced she was dying.
A lonely figure cowering in hot, tangled bedsheets, the 71-year-old felt a pounding in her chest so painful she struggled for breath.
This sense of panic had been reoccurring every night since she began shielding at her Manchester home alone at the beginning of the pandemic, her heart beating fast, the words of that evening’s television news about hospitalisations and deaths whirring in her mind, forcing her to roam the house for hours.
The retired clerical worker who suffers MS would implore her elderly cat, Amber, her only company for months: “When will this end?” But Amber could only stare mutely in response.
Have you struggled with your mental health in lockdown? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell your story
Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
That night, Joyce thought she was having a heart attack.
“It was like the walls were closing in on me,” she recalls.
“I just felt so hot, I had palpitations, my heart was pounding and I had a pain in my chest.”
She rang her son who rushed her to A&E. Doctors diagnosed an anxiety attack.
Joyce was speechless – never in her life had she suffered them before.
“I have been through quite a lot of trauma, my MS diagnosis, my husband dying, my mum dying, looking after them both. So to be suffering them at this time in my life, I was surprised,” she admits.
But sadly, there is little surprising about Joyce’s anxiety attacks.
Older people, advised to shield when Covid-19 struck, and reminded repeatedly of their vulnerability, have seen a dramatic decline in their mental health.
Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
Those like Joyce who live alone have faced often debilitating isolation, with one study showing shielders faced “markedly higher” levels of depression and anxiety, symptoms twice as common among high-risk individuals who were isolating.
Many found themselves parted from partners in care homes, or tragically grieving. The number of over-65s bereaved rose by 15%.
Now in Day Four of our HeadStrong: Better Mental Health For All campaign, we can reveal exclusive data released to the Daily Mirror from charity Independent Age shows almost half of older people say their mental health has got worse because of the pandemic.
Twenty-nine percent say they feel sad, low or depressed about the future, 22% are still anxious about getting Covid-19, and 16% say they will continue to feel lonely despite the end of lockdown.
For many older people, the lifting of restrictions has not meant the end of anxiety, or even shielding.
Joyce admits, despite being double vaccinated, it was only six weeks ago she ventured out again to art and exercise classes which stopped in March 2020.
“I can’t get the bus or taxis, anywhere that’s busy I feel on edge,” she explains.
“I still feel tired from living in a constant state of stress,” she admits, adding she continues to take the anti-depressant prescribed to her during the pandemic.
Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
Data published fortnightly by the ONS reveals for the last seven-day period surveyed in mid-September, an estimated 460,000 people aged 70+ in Great Britain did not leave their house.
In that same time frame, an estimated 2.3 million older people said they did not feel comfortable leaving home due to the pandemic.
“Older people are often overlooked in the discussion about mental health but they cannot be left behind,” says Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Independent Age.
“The Government must take forward learnings from COVID-19 and prioritise funding of mental health support.”
Joyce’s story is very typical.
When Covid hit, her cleaner stopped coming, and her sons could only drop her shopping off at the door.
Despite being 21 flats in her retirement complex, the communal garden was a “ghost town”.
Every night her anxiety would soar “sky high”, and the insomnia caused debilitating fatigue which worsened her MS symptoms.
Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
Get all the latest news straight to your inbox. Sign up to one of the Mirror’s newsletters
She says this continued every night for around six months.
Her thoughts became dominated by her own death, and a feeling she no longer wanted to carry on.
“I had this fixed in my head, if I catch Covid I will die,” she recalls.
“I remember Boris Johnson advising older people to have a serious chat with their relatives, so I talked to my sons about the end of my life.”
Desperately sadly, she recalls: “I apologised in advance for the clutter in my flat that they would have to sort out. I discussed my funeral, said I didn’t want a fuss.”
She adds: “There were moments I didn’t want to carry on.”
The Daily Mirror is launching our new campaign HeadStrong: Better Mental Health For All.
We’re calling for:
- Early Access Mental Health Hubs for under 25s to be rolled out across the country, with at least one for each trust.
- Waiting times to be cut so people actually start treatment with a professional within four weeks
- The Govt to fill in the gaps in care – an end of red tape which means many don’t fit the set criteria to get help plus 8,500 more mental health staff
- Compulsory Mental Health education lessons in schools, plus paid counsellors in schools and care homes
Want to help? Write to your MP and ask them to support the current Early Day Motion 459 to debate mental health and the pandemic in parliament.
Thankfully, Joyce felt able to call her GP, who referred her to Age UK Manchester’s Counselling Service, and regular therapy plus medication has helped her manage her anxiety.
In early 2020 the charity’s service provided 55 hours of counselling a month. This has now increased to an average of 76 per month, sometimes nearly 90.
Service manager Peter Ireland describes callers suffering anxiety, depression, and complicated bereavement, as well as health anxiety, stress from caring during Covid, and isolation.
He describes one client with COPD living in a small bedsit for whom shielding caused claustrophobia.
“We had another client whose husband died of Covid and due to her own shielding she could not attend his funeral,” he adds. “They had been married 54 years. Counselling helped her with her complicated grieving process and guilt.”
He says: “For some of our clients there was a general fear of this invisible enemy and they became fearful of other people, of going shopping, or going out for a walk. Even though the lockdown is over for many people, the fear, anxiety and mistrust carries on for them.”
But while Joyce asked for help, many older people have not.
Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham, an academic specialising in older people and mental health, who also works as a GP, explains Covid’s message of ‘Protect the NHS’ made many reluctant to bother their surgery. They were also put off by online consulting, or fearful of attending in person.
She says older people often still feel a stigma around mental health, and this is exacerbated by too many GPs “normalising” mental health problems in older patients, and not asking about their mood.
Referral rates to NHS psychological therapies (IAPT) for over-65s are always lower than they should be. While the target for the age group is 12% of all referrals, pre-pandemic they made up just 5.7%.
And this actually fell, to 4.6%, by the start of this year.
Professor Chew-Graham says: “It has always been a hidden problem, now it’s more hidden.”
And she starkly explains as well as quality of life, life itself is at risk for older people if their mental health is not supported.
“Older adults also self-harm and kill themselves,” she explains.
“Nice guidance on self-harm talks about cutting and overdose, but the older adults we have spoken to say this can include binge eating, excess alcohol, maybe not taking your tablets or following your diabetes diet.”
And she adds depression can also worsen physical conditions, even fatally.
“One of the key things is depression can make other long term conditions worse,” she says. “It can make the outcomes poorer for diabetes or heart disease. This can result in earlier deaths.”
While support has now helped Joyce venture beyond her four walls, many older people still remain inside, desperately in need.
How to get help: If you are struggling or you are worried about a loved one, contact Samaritans on 116123. For more advice visit nhs.uk/mental-health or www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus