Long COVID can be unpredictable, the physical symptoms might prevent you from socialising and working, and with no idea how long this will last, it’s no surprise that many people are experiencing related mental health issues. One study showed that 34% of people were suffering from mood disorders or anxiety six months after their initial COVID-19 infection, while another showed a slight increase in both mental health issues between the six-month and 12-month mark.

“There’s a link between increased rates of mental and emotional struggles with any long-term debilitating condition,” says Stephen Jones, the RCN Professional Lead for Mental Health. “Although long COVID is not yet clearly defined, generally people who experience the longer-term effects of contracting COVID-19 are also experiencing mental health struggles as they come to terms with increased isolation, anxiety and renewed fears of what will happen to them.”

It makes me sad that my life has changed so much

Many RCN members have described how being stuck at home, unable to relieve stress by exercising or socialising, and worrying about their future career and health, have led to feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Leila* contracted COVID-19 in spring 2020. She has faced debilitating physical symptoms, which have left her unable to work or do things like running that she previously enjoyed. She also feels unsupported by her employers, adding to her isolation.

“Psychologically, I've been through hell,” says Leila. “The combination of my symptoms and the way my managers have spoken to me has affected my mental health. For over a year, I have sobbed day and night, which I do feel has exacerbated my symptoms. It makes me sad that my life has changed so much.”

Natasha* has also felt the psychological impact of her ongoing physical symptoms and the uncertainty of the future. “Feeling stressed about keeping my job is not helping my recovery,” she says. “I used to run to relieve stress, but I don’t even have that outlet anymore. I’m trying to meditate instead. I am desperate to recover, to get back to being me and enjoying life again.”

For over a year, I have sobbed day and night

Professional support can help, Stephen says: “There is a wealth of information and resources out there. But the main thing is to make sure you connect with someone – that is so important for mental health. The pandemic has made everyone feel isolated. Find others who have gone through the same experiences as it will be helpful to share what you’re going or have been through.”

For Leila, the RCN Counselling Service provided much-needed support. “I had seven sessions that were really helpful, because I’ve got no one else to talk to. There’s a lot of hurt I need to get out. I feel better knowing that I’m not alone."

Social media has offered information and support for nurse Michelle*, who has connected with other long COVID sufferers on Facebook and Reddit. "Don’t suffer in silence,” she says. “Even accessing the social media groups for long COVID, it’s nice to see you’re not alone.

Don’t suffer in silence… there are hundreds of thousands of people experiencing the same things

"You can start getting in your own head, thinking: am I weak? Am I imagining this? But you’re not, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there experiencing the same things. It's rubbish that we're having to go through all this, but at least it makes you feel less lonely."

It’s also important to acknowledge your feelings and know you don’t have to be “resilient” all the time. “We often use this term to describe nursing staff, but for someone experiencing a mental health crisis, they will feel anything but,” Stephen says. “Nursing staff should feel supported and the pandemic will have impacted our perception of resilience hugely.”

*Names have been changed.

Words by Susan Embley and Rachael Healy.
Illustrations by Andrea Ucini.

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