Isabella McDonnell pens a post-pandemic portrait
Daniel had plans to celebrate his university graduation surrounded by his closest friends, a community he had carefully built over the years spent away from home. But then came lockdown, and exciting plans turned into packed bags, awaiting the move back home, as Daniel didn’t have a job offer upon graduating, nor the money needed to move into a flat with his friends.
Being back at home during lockdown was harder than imaginable. Being away from home for the last few years meant he could escape the looming pressure of coming out to his family. Now, with each day spent indoors, layer upon layer of tension reached a breaking point at home.
He felt the pressure to come out to his family, and so he did. At the height of the pandemic, Daniel’s parents told him he had to leave. Without a social network in his hometown, he became homeless.
Daniel (not his real name) is among countless individuals across the country who have had their lives torn apart, complicated, and uniquely impacted by the pandemic. In Daniel’s case, it meant being forced to come out before he was ready to.
It’s important to consider how the pandemic has layered more vulnerabilities on top of already existing ones. “Coming out is a really complicated issue and no one should be made to come out – it’s a very unique experience and should (happen) when someone’s ready and able to. Suffocating is the word that comes to mind,” says Tash Walker, Co-Chair of Switchboard – a charity that provides multi-channel support to members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Finding a safe space in the pandemic
Switchboard supports a diverse and intersectional group of people, with the pandemic consequently shining a light on their lives and complexities: “There’s something really upsetting about (the experience of) transgender and gender non-conforming people this year…these people may have had their gender treatment paused or the appointments they’ve been waiting for their entire lives (be cancelled).”
As Walker explains, the pandemic “has already had a huge impact within our communities and it’s magnified any existing mental health issues; from loneliness and isolation, to people struggling to come out, to being forced to move home or back to a place they left.”
Switchboard’s move to remote working was met with increased numbers of those under-24 contacting the helpline. Younger members of the community preferred to reach out through social media: “They were reaching out to us through instant message and email, not only because they’re mediums that they’re more comfortable with, but also because of not wanting to be overhead.”
Housing and the need for safe spaces is an additional concern for charities supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. “Many people have had to move back home after university because they can’t afford rented accommodation. We’ve spoken to young trans people who have had to move back in with their families, who were misgendering them everyday.” With the increase in homelessness, Outside Project has provided a shelter for affected community members, while Stonewall Housing supports them to find safe and secure homes for the future.
Switchboard reports its anonymous statistics into governmental bodies to help inform future policy. “Looking at the period since the end of March, at the height of the pandemic, the contacts to our helpline (messaging, email and phone) went up by 40% (overall) compared with 2019, while contacts from the transgender and gender non-conforming demographic went up by 42%.”
Due to the increased number of hate crimes year-on-year, Switchboard began reporting on isolation and loneliness in 2019, with its first official report set to be released in April 2021, encompassing the data collected throughout the pandemic. “I think we have a responsibility to do something with that data because it’s a direct reflection of what’s happening within our communities.”
Walker admits that, due to the nature of the service, while younger people have been increasingly reaching out, older demographics remain a more isolated group given the lack of internet or smartphone access. The reduction of social spaces and the subsequent loss of community may be contributing to the increased numbers: “When people are contacting us saying they’re lonely, with a 12% increase in callers in 2019 from 2018, what they’re really saying is ‘I feel isolated as a LGBTQIA+ person.’”
“There’s so much strength in finding a community,” Walker says. Switchboard, Outside Project, and Stonewall Housing, among many other organisations, are providing the vital sense of community that has disappeared with the closure of physical, safe spaces. “It has taken a real community effort to keep the charity going. We’re evolving and changing because of (the pandemic) and we’ll be a very different organisation when we come out of this.”
Digital poverty and justice
A lack of confidence with technology and “digital poverty” also has a deafening impact on individuals seeking justice during the pandemic. Jovana Ugrinic, Service Manager for the London Family Courts at legal charity Support Through Court, details how the pandemic has affected their service and what it means for litigants-in-person (those who are not represented by a lawyer in court).
“There are people out there who don’t even own a tablet or a smartphone. That’s something we were seeing pre-COVID – people would come (into the office) and not even have an email address.”
A lack of digital connectivity is becoming a major barrier to progressing one’s case through the courts, as the court will be communicating with the applicant and sending notice of hearings via email. Having an email address, Ugrinic says, “is paramount.”
Many services litigants relied upon to navigate the system, such as Support Through Court, Citizens Advice, and others, have had to shut down their face-to-face services. The onus is now on the litigant to submit all their court documents online. Since the start of lockdown, HMCTS was given the herculean task of transitioning the courts to be fully remote nationally, with hearings taking place over phone or video conference calls.
While Support Through Court and similar services are slowly and carefully returning to face-to-face appointments, the future is ultimately in developing a multi-channel service that can meet the growing demands of individuals in a post-pandemic world. But clients still miss the human contact of face-to-face support.
“What we have found is, when somebody has a phone hearing, it has often been helpful to have a chat beforehand on a video call, as people appreciate seeing a human face, even if it’s on a screen.”
“We are definitely moving towards a multi-channel service where we can offer different kinds of support. The latest project we are about to launch with RCJ Advice (provides) digital access to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise. (We’ve installed) digital booths with a desk and a tablet and access to a volunteer and family solicitor through Zoom.”
But the digitalisation of courts has brought about some clear benefits. Ugrinic notes the impact it’s had on survivors of domestic abuse: survivors “have found remote hearings to be much less anxiety-inducing. You can only imagine their levels of stress every time they would go to court, at the thought of potentially bumping into the perpetrator.”
While “special measures” can be requested by litigants in cases involving domestic abuse (provision of a separate entrance, exit and waiting rooms for the parties), often they don’t know it’s available to them. “When you are involved in a case emotionally you don’t really think about all the practicalities and how you can protect yourself – and even if (clients are aware) people think it’s as if they’re asking for special treatment. People don’t realise this is about a chance to be given a fair hearing.”
Where a disparity in awareness of special measures for domestic abuse survivors leads to small dose inequality for in-person hearings, digital courts present an opportunity to quell those pressures, as well as saving the individual the costs of travel and childcare.
Courts’ caseloads are often clogged up by issues that could be easily solved through mediation. Increased parental disputes during lockdown, such as where to drop off your child on a Sunday and if they should attend school at all, while important concerns, are questions that can ultimately be resolved without going to court.
Judges and legal practitioners are making an appeal to parents and mediators to raise awareness of the different means of solving an issue that doesn’t involve the courts. “You can still solve these problems amicably with an impartial third party,” Ugrinic states. Mediation can also be done entirely remote, either on the phone or through video conferencing.
Support Through Court has also had to quickly adapt to the new normal and that meant evolving the service. Fortuitously, the charity launched its national helpline in March, just as lockdown began, which saw an increase in requests for support on remote hearings. Significantly, the national helpline received an endorsement from HMCTS amid the rapid digital transition.
Blurred lines between mental health and justice
The increased demand seen by charities across different areas has illustrated the interconnected nature of people’s challenges throughout the pandemic. Ugrinic notes, “the pandemic has exacerbated people’s mental health, who on top of that also have to deal with their legal cases.”
Homelessness is a major concern across the pro-bono sector. Courts are expecting a surge in eviction cases in the next three to four months, following the lift on the stay on eviction claims (23rd September). With more time spent inside the home, an increase in litigation of family matters since the lockdown has also been seen, including reported increases in domestic violence and divorce. For Support Through Court, 61% of the cases dealt with on its national helpline since the start of the lockdown were family-related.
“Being a litigant-in-person is not a choice”, Ugrinic poignantly states. “There’s this misconception that they’ve found themselves in these situations in not choosing the right partner or the right job. Often it is a case of a lack of state support, such as the cuts to legal aid that have been happening since 2013. Every year thousands of cases going through the family courts have at least one side that is unrepresented.”
When being unrepresented in the most life-changing matters leads to feelings of inequity, face-to-face contact with other human beings and being understood in the face of our challenges becomes vital. Speaking with Terrence Collis, one of the trustees of The Listening Place, a London-based charity providing non-judgmental emotional support for those who are suicidal or who feel life is no longer worth living, he explained how the charity has also had to transition its service due to COVID-19: “We’ve had to turn our face-to-face service into a phone service and that has been a struggle.” Going remote has meant that vital, in-person training for listening and helping volunteers has had to be put on hold.
The organisation recently lost its newest satellite operations, meant to support the increasing number of visitor referrals. Due to a lack of contact with GPs and social distancing, lockdown led to a decrease in NHS referrals. “As we went into lockdown, we were getting around 330 referrals per month, which dropped to 250 during lockdown, and now we’re back up to 340 per month (for September). At the moment we are supporting 900 people in total, with over 7,000 referrals made in the last 5 years.”
Expressing your suicidal thoughts is an understandable, human tactic to get help when you’re desperate. Looking at the 2008 economic crisis, scientific studies have pointed to an increased rate of suicide across Europe and the U.S. following a recession, while the WHO reported a 60% increase in global suicide rates overall taking place over the last 45 years before 2014.
Currently, the charity does not have capacity to deal with more referrals, due to in-person training and further satellite operations that are required to meet the need. Despite its challenges, The Listening Place hopes to expand in the near future – “I hope there will be listening places all over the place because the model is reproducible.”
When it comes to supporting the suicidal during a pandemic, there is much that can be learnt in how to support others. What would Collis suggest for others in our day-to-day lives during this pandemic? “Give people a bit of time. It’s amazing how much it will help when you listen to someone for a bit. We live in a manic world that never stops.”
It is well-established that there is a growing gap in Britain’s social care, health, and mental health workforce. The NHS has projected a need to fill 27,000 jobs in mental health services by 2023-24. Mental health recruitment charity Think Ahead released a report in July on how public knowledge and perceptions of careers in mental health act as a barrier to bridging the widening gap.
The report noted that while virtually everyone surveyed believed that mental health recruitment is important (93%) and enables people to make a real difference, respondents overestimated the barriers to entering the workforce and maintained negative misconceptions, such as there being a high risk of being attacked (90%), a lot of paperwork (95%) and low wages (58%). To tackle this vast gap in the workforce, Think Ahead offers a new route into mental health social work through its flagship graduate programme providing an income whilst training, along with full funding for tuition fees and living costs.
Think Ahead CEO Ella Joseph noted in an opinion piece that, “The mental health workforce is going to be more important than ever as we emerge from this pandemic” with “thousands more professionals” urgently needed to combat the oncoming, post-pandemic wave of those suffering from mental health conditions. Despite dystopian visions of receiving care from human-like robots, as is the case in Japan to support its aging population, when it comes to fears of compounded job insecurity driven by technological advancement, Think Ahead posits that “supporting people with mental health problems is likely to always be a human-powered activity” requiring “sophisticated personal and social skills that cannot be automated.”
While pre-existing vulnerabilities come to the foreground alongside new ones, the current crisis presents an opportunity to rethink mental health as being just as worthy of scrutiny as physical health, and to reflect on how our society’s mental health impacts our ability to advocate for ourselves in the events that matter and connect with others more deeply.
There is a measure of hope for Daniel’s story. As we ride out the coronavirus, he may get the emotional and practical support he needs through various organisations, helping him find secure housing, financial support, and a community of others who understand him. But each of us can lean into that narrative through those we come into contact with.
In our post-pandemic world, Switchboard, Support Through Court, The Listening Place, Think Ahead, and numerous other front-line organisations like them, are providing the transformational leadership we need to heal our communities and recoup human dignity, no matter how long we stay masked, sanitised, and in lockdown.