• All Covid restrictions are being lifted in England from Thursday

  • We spoke to welldoing.org therapists and counsellors to find out how this might affect the nation's mental health

On Monday 21 February 2022 Boris Johnson announced that all Covid restrictions would end in England on Thursday, as we embark upon a new plan to 'live well with Covid'. 

After two years of restrictions, we are being urged to treat Covid like the flu, to show personal responsibility and consideration for others. 

NHS doctors are warning of a second pandemic of mental health problems, with millions of patients facing dangerously long waiting lists for psychological support. National levels of depression have doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, and yet even the most at-risk patients are being bounced back from overwhelmed doctors and support services. 

Quoted in The Guardian, Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, shared: 

“We are moving towards a new phase of needing to ‘live with’ coronavirus but for a worrying number of people, the virus is leaving a growing legacy of poor mental health that services are not equipped to deal with adequately at present.

With projections showing that 10 million people in England, including 1.5 million children and teenagers, will need new or additional support for their mental health over the next three to five years it is no wonder that health leaders have dubbed this the second pandemic. A national crisis of this scale deserves targeted and sustained attention from the government in the same way we have seen with the elective care backlog.”

Will removing restrictions help people feel better, as life returns to something closer to what we knew before? Or will our new national freedoms increase anxiety levels?

Therapists and counsellors have been under immense pressure throughout the pandemic, having to deal with what Covid meant to their own personal lives, while supporting others through it. They have witnessed up close the mental health impact across the nation, and now have mixed feelings about what losing the restrictions will mean for their clients. Some believe it will improve mental health, others think it disregards the wellbeing of society's most vulnerable. 

They shared their thoughts with us:

Emily Hilton, psychotherapist in Central London:

"Among the millennial demographic, it feels as if we've been adjusting to re-opening for quite some time now, so perhaps the shift to zero restrictions might not feel so impactful – a lot has already been processed and navigated during the unlocking period to date. 

However, it will mean we need to determine our own boundaries independently of government recommendation: do we want to be wearing masks still, for example; are we comfortable going back to crowded, non-ventilated spaces? 

Perhaps there will be more of an emotional impact than anticipated. Relief perhaps, maybe grief. I wonder whether different emotions might come to the surface, too: anecdotally, I feel members of my generation might be beginning to connect with a sense of anger that perhaps has been less palpable until now."

Natasha Wellfare, counsellor in Westcliffe-on-Sea:

"As the NHS struggle to respond to the mental health crisis, workplace wellbeing is critical right now. Not everyone can afford to pay for private counselling therefore if your employer has support packages in place, you are less likely to get lost in the system.

Separately, I'm seeing a huge increase in children presenting with eating related disorders, both in my private practice and in the charity I work for. Covid has hugely impacted the trust children have in their environment. As a result of this, I completed additional training in area of eating disorders last year as it's a very specialist area. I think mental health professionals are continually needing to check their training and experience against the challenges that Covid presents."

Deepa Pagarani, psychotherapist in West London:

"I think whilst there will be a sense of relief in some ways, it will take a while for people to feel less anxious about the virus as it's still present and we don’t know what will happen in the near future. 

People with underlying mental health issues may find it more difficult to be at ease or feel safe in the world. Re-integration back into the world will take time and things are not necessarily going to be the same as pre-pandemic."

Sue Cowan-Jenssen, psychotherapist in North London:

"For the clinically vulnerable and the elderly, life without the regulations, will have just got a lot less safe. One of my clients has reduced immunity due to chemotherapy; she takes taxis because she doesn’t feel safe on public transport. Now she is worried that her cab driver will not be self-isolating if he has Covid because he doesn’t have to. 

If something positive came out of the pandemic, it was surely the emphasis on looking out for each other and an increased awareness of how we depend on each other for our collective wellbeing. The abandonment of the regulations or the need to self-isolate, shows the government is not looking out for its citizens, for us, but looking out for itself. That makes me feel less safe."

Matthew Benjamin, psychotherapist in Central London:

"For some it will feel better, yet others have fear and anxiety about restrictions being lifted. For example I spoke to a colleague who shared how uncomfortable and alien it felt greeting a friend with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, after adhering to social distancing etiquette for so long."

Lorraine Green, psychotherapist in Brighton:

"Covid-19 has left an indelible mark on the mental wellbeing of the nation. It rocked the very core of our collective sense of safety and certainty about the world we live in. 

Therefore, ‘back to normal’ will look very different for large groups of people. Many would have lost loved ones or experienced a severe bout of the virus themselves. They might have lost businesses or jobs. As a result, a significant minority of people will continue to exhibit anxiety and mood disorders. They will feel on ‘high alert’; sub-consciously scanning for future dangers. The ‘threat’ may be fading, but our internal sense of safety has disappeared. A sub-conscious low hum of anxiety now plays in the background of people’s minds.

I think this will manifest in less direct ways; such as more people reporting insomnia, increased alcohol consumption or feeling acutely stressed. The Great Resignation has already been much talked about as a ‘fall-out’ of the pandemic, but we’re also beginning to see the mental health fall-out, which will manifest in an insidious sensation of not feeling ‘quite right’.

It’s not all doom and gloom, as humans we are built to adapt and survive. A study by the Mental Health Foundation in 2021 reported anxiety about the pandemic fell from 62 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 42 per cent in February 2021. However, this survey also reported that feelings of loneliness remained high and had not returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

For many the pandemic and Covid-19 was a traumatic experience. The very fabric of life was turned upside down, and unsurprisingly it will take time for the collective consciousness to return to normal levels."

Sumeet Grover, psychotherapist in Leighton Buzzard:

"Slowing down has been the most valuable gift of the last two years to me, and I am certain it has been so for others. To take a pause, to listen to the sound of silence in one's life, to discover one's natural pace, and to create time and space to reconnect to oneself -- these are aspects that we had long lost touch with.

The past two years have shown that the future is hard to predict, but whatever unfolds before us, I hope that more of us will have the opportunity to reconnect to the depths of ourselves – whether it be through mindfulness, nature walks or, most importantly, through psychotherapy. We must remember the value of a moment of complete silence – that is when we truly start to become ourselves."