“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it with all of our baggage. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

It’s hard to know even where to begin. It’s often said that these are strange times and I certainly haven’t known anything like this in my 55 years. I was in a secure service during the Swine flu pandemic in 2009 and it was nothing like this – yes, we had posters explaining how to wash our hands and section 17 leave and other activities were cancelled for a short time, but this is very different. I don’t remember if social distancing was enforced, hardly anyone became infected (at least in my hospital) and for anyone who was, the potential consequences didn’t seem to be so serious as those with COVID-19. My heart goes out to people in secure services now, as well as their families and friends. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have been on ‘lockdown’ for so long and to have leave cancelled, visits cancelled, some activities cancelled and to not be certain when it will all end.

At Rethink Mental Illness, in association with NHS England, we’re currently running a survey for service users, families and carers to find out more about what it is like – to hear directly from people themselves. We’re hoping to hear what is working well, what is not working so well, what improvements people would like to see and what people would like to see continued after the pandemic is over. While we wait for the results of the survey, but people I know in some services have been telling me stories of both difficulties and hope coming through. What I’m hearing from some people is that there are things happening now that are different from the ‘normal’ and how some things are actually better. It’s so heart-warming to hear that for some, there is more ‘quality time’ being spent between people, that there is more kindness at times and that, despite all of the difficulties, people are pulling together and getting through this as best they can.

It puts my experience of ‘lockdown’ into perspective. I can work from home on a really good laptop. I see my colleagues every day on video calls. I can call someone up at any time if I’m feeling a bit ‘wobbly’ as I have done on many an occasion. I can go out for a walk each day. I can go to the local shop, that is really well-stocked and quiet for most of the day. I can speak to my family and friends on my phone or on my computer. On the days when I find the restrictions hard, I think of what it would be like to still be in a secure hospital. And I am so grateful of the freedoms and privileges I still have now that I’m living in the community.

And elsewhere there is a lot of awfulness that is also happening now. The 40,000 deaths and their families who may not have been able to attend their funeral. The many challenges there are to keep people as safe as possible and the things that may not have been done well by people who are there to protect us. At times I have found hearing about all of these things overwhelming and I have taken a break from the news and social media for a large part of lockdown. News still filters through though and I’m distraught at what has been happening in other parts of the world and which has been happening sometimes unnoticed for a very long time. I wish I could share some of the goodness and hope that I’ve been experiencing around me, in the privileged bubble that I live in.

I’ve also noticed other very positive changes that have come out of all of this. I love that people now say ‘hello’ as they pass you at a safe distance in the street. I’ve really enjoyed the chats I have with the other people 2 metres away in the queue for the supermarket. I’ve loved the ‘Clap for Carers’ on a Thursday evening and have met some of my nearest neighbours that I didn’t even know I had. I speak to my family and friends much more regularly now and our relationships are all the stronger for it. These are things that I would miss if we went back to the ‘normal’ we had before COVID-19. There just seem to be more pockets of kindness at the moment and I think people are beginning to be more aware of those less fortunate and are doing their best to take care of them.

I long for the day when this is all over. To be able to see my family and friends, to just have a hug from someone. I can only imagine how much people in secure services long for the day when they can have their leave back and communal activities can start up again. But I don’t want to go back to exactly how things were. I’d like to think that we can hold on to at least some of the ways that things have been better – the increased kindness, the increased support for each other and the increased awareness of shared experiences that we seem to have gained. I found a quote I really like from a writer called Arundhati Roy that for me sums up what I’m feeling right now:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it with all of our baggage. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

One of the people I work with that has really kept me going, with video calls, with humour and with lots of kindness is my colleague Gaby. Over to you Gaby!

What an introduction! Thanks Ian, I look forward to our video calls which always bring a smile to my face!

I have been feeling similarly to Ian. I have been struggling with being unable to see family or friends or do a lot of the usual activities that keep me happy and busy such as seeing live music or eating out. I also miss things I never thought I would like travelling on the train and watching the world go by or exploring busy central London. I have never lived in secure care but I expect that many of the things I miss now would be similar to how I feel if I lived in a service. I am so grateful for even the smallest freedoms I currently have in my life and appreciate the simple joys in each day: my morning coffee, a joke shared with my housemates or listening to my favourite song.

I am finding my work at Rethink to be a saving grace. It feels good to know I am helping others through this difficult time. The Recovery and Outcomes survey has kept me busy, alongside other work I have been doing to support the physical health of people with mental illness.

I also long for the day that this is all over. However, I am trying to see this time as an opportunity. An opportunity to reconnect with myself and those I love. An opportunity to spend more time being creative: painting, singing and drawing. An opportunity to think about what I want my future to look like and how I might get there. An opportunity to work with others to build a better world. I have also been warmed by how this crisis has brought people together and the incredible demonstrations of kindness and community that it has inspired in people.

I hope that this crisis helps us to remember what is important in life and to appreciate what we have. I, like Ian, also want things to go back to ‘normal’ but think this is a normal that must be kinder, more supportive and looks out for everyone in society, especially those who after all of this, will still not be able to access the freedoms many of us miss.

Ian Callaghan – Recovery and Secure Care Manager, Rethink Mental Illness

Gaby Hasham – Senior Recovery and Outcomes Project Officer, Rethink Mental Illness

About Rethink Mental Illness:

Rethink Mental Illness believes that everyone severely affected by mental illness can be supported to live a meaningful life. We’re a leading charity, set up by a carer 50 years ago, and we provide mental health services throughout England. People with experience of mental illness are at the heart of everything we do. We provide around 200 services – everything from housing to community-based services and an award-winning advice and information service. We campaign to change the law and fight discrimination. We also run over 100 local groups which provide peer support in the community. We know, from our experience, that people severely affected by mental illness can have a good quality of life.

For further information, if you are able to, please visit our website at www.rethink.org

For anything at all related to Recovery and Outcomes, including our Champions network, please email recoveryandoutcomes@rethink.org or call 020 7840 3126

Our advice and information service can be reached on 0300 5000 327 between 10am and 2pm Monday to Friday.