The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have proved to be as far-reaching as the virus itself and, like the virus, they have disproportionately targeted already vulnerable members of society. For those struggling with their mental health in particular, the isolation created by the lockdowns and social distancing rules designed to protect their physical health have had a devastating effect on their ability to cope, as they have been prevented from accessing much of the support they are usually able to rely on. As British presenter and journalist Stacey Dooley discovers as she heads Back On The Psych Ward, the pandemic has only served to further strain a system already on the brink.
Since Stacey’s last visit to Springfield Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the south of London, demand for mental health interventions has increased exponentially and waiting lists are longer than ever. She is afforded a unique perspective as she is given the opportunity to work alongside the team once again over a six-month period which includes London’s second lockdown, experiencing the additional challenges presented by the pandemic first-hand. From the outset, Stacey is taken aback by the sheer scale of the task facing the nurses and doctors who work around the clock to assist those in crisis, as they find ways to do their job effectively in the context of a ‘new normal’.
During one of her shifts at the hospital, Stacey meets Suziee, a mum and aspiring nurse diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). The disorder is characterised by mood instability and impulsivity, but can present in a variety of ways, and can lead to suicidal thoughts in some cases. Suziee is a familiar face at the hospital, having been a patient five times previously, but it is her honesty and willingness to share her story that immediately endears her to Stacey.
Suziee, like many of the other patients admitted to these wards, challenges the stereotype of those living with chronic mental illness, but her lived experience is also proof of the unpredictability of these conditions. She is funny, clever and dedicated to her child, but just when she feels she has found some stability, the stumbling blocks of therapy availability, social disadvantage and a global pandemic find a way to take her right back to square one. It’s heartbreaking to watch this vicious cycle unfold, particularly when each discharge is filled with so much positivity and hope of never needing to return.
For 21-year-old Ali, living in the residential unit at the hospital, her obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has been exacerbated by a world now obsessed with safety, cleanliness and disease, forcing her to seek inpatient care for the disorder she says is ruining her life. Though it has robbed her of so much, Ali is determined to find a way to overcome her OCD, putting herself in situations that terrify her in hopes of conquering her fears.
Stacey’s conversations with Ali, and indeed with all the patients she encounters, are completely devoid of judgement and filled with compassion, but she doesn’t shy away from seeking to discover what living with these conditions is really like. There is no quick fix and, for some, relapse and remission are inevitable and lifelong. Stacey is consistently floored by the bravery of these patients not only in speaking about their conditions, but in continuing to persevere and work towards the possibility of a life free from the torment they bring.
It’s not just the patients who are dealing with the consequences of COVID’s disruption, with nurses and doctors admitting to feeling burnt out like never before. In many cases, it’s their reasons for choosing this profession that keep them going through the tough times, as they understand the important role they play in helping those going through the lowest times in their lives.
Jack, a mental health nurse, shares with Stacey how his own battle with an eating disorder as a teen and subsequent depression have given him greater empathy for the patients in his care. It’s also given him a deep understanding of how the disruption brought about by COVID has contributed to both the re-admission of previously stable patients and countless new individuals presenting with crippling mental health issues.
For charge nurse Grace, just 24, the incredible responsibility she takes on each and every day, and the confronting nature of her work have meant switching off whenever she can is more important than ever. Whether it’s a brief moment in the car singing to music, or a warming cup of tea in front of the television, as Grace explains to Stacey, the ability to unwind is crucial in allowing her to turn up ready to provide quality care for her patients. As Stacey points out, being a young woman in these situations can’t be easy, especially when the mental health epidemic sweeping the UK, and indeed the world, is largely a problem facing young people just like her.
As Stacey continues to assist the staff and patients at the hospital, getting involved with every part of the process from admission to discharge, the consequences of the pandemic show no signs of abating. Though the world is starting to return to some semblance of normality, for the individuals here, rebuilding their lives with the lingering threat of contracting the virus, and the isolation it brings, is a slow and complex process.
While the doctors and nurses on the front line of the fight against COVID have done incredible work through adversity, for Stacey, the dedicated mental health staff on these wards are the ones who will continue to bear the lasting impact of the pandemic for years to come.
Stacey Dooley: Back on the Psych Ward premieres at 9.45pm, Tuesday 19 October on SBS VICELAND. (Also catch season 2 of Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, premiering at 9.45pm, Tuesday 26 October at SBS VICELAND.)