Before I get into this article, I would like to point out that I am not a writer - I am a therapist. I work in supporting good people with a variety of mental health challenges that they face. Within my work, in the last year I have adapted into a specialist role working with people in the Shielding community affected by the Pandemic.
In the planning of this article, I really struggled to identify which salient points to draw out of the experiences of the shielding community in an attempt to do it the most justice. After all, how can one possibly summarise the generalised impact of a life altering experience for 2.2 million people in the UK? It wouldn’t be fair nor reasonably reflective to squeeze that all into one short article. As such I introduce this as the first of several articles on the supporting those in the shielding community.
The intent of this is to raise awareness of the challenges and experience of the shielding community, aiming it at a level of general community interest and that of therapists of who may be approached to support someone with “Shielding trauma or stress”.
In this article, I will talk about the beginning of it all, and a regular point of trauma that has been discussed with many of my amazing shielding clients – The day the news about shielding was received. To do this we must go back to March 2020....
Where all of our versions of life in the UK and view of the world changed. We as members of the nation and wider world, began a collective grieving process for the life we believed we once had and the loss of an undetermined period in the future.
With this grief, everyone took to the process and responded differently. In essence that is because loss is different for every single person although we are found to follow similar patterns of response depending on our lives and interpretations leading up to a given point.
As the pandemic altered the course of each of our lives differently, there was no right or wrong way to get through it. Surviving this pandemic was and is an entirely bespoke experience for every one of us. Suffice to say we have not all been in the same boat - we’ve been the same storm with the choppy unaccountable waters, causing wave after wave to knock us. Its been up to us to steady our own boat the best way we can through it. Some have navigated the storm on a yacht and others in a dingy, either way its been a torrid journey.
Whilst there has been many positive, encouraging and spirited stories of community action and togetherness since the pandemic began, for a portion of the population (2.2 million people in fact) it has been a different experience. That 2.2m people were those deemed Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) back in March 2020, who were instructed by the government to “shield”. Many of these feel that they have been left in the dark and more than metaphorically shut away out of sight.
With the many shielders that I have worked with, One day in particular really stands out as a point of discussion in most of the cases I have worked with: “The day that I was notified about shielding and what it meant”. Suffice to say, it has had a lasting effect for many:
When lockdown hit you’d have received a letter dated March 21st 2020 or text from the government addressed directly to you. It informed you that you have been identified as at risk of severe illness if you catch COVID 19 and that you are more than likely to be admitted to hospital than others. This is due to you having a pre-existing disease or health condition. The instruction on the back of this being highlighted was that you must remain inside for 12 weeks and avoid ALL face-to-face contact except for carers and medical support.
The letter didn’t just land on the door mat, it caused a crater in the lives of many who received it, and the after tremors have been happening ever since
“I felt like I had suddenly been informed that I am under house arrest for something that I wasn’t aware that I had done”
“I had been grounded and everything I had planned to do got instantly taken from me”
“Suddenly I believed if I went outside and saw someone, I would die”
“The thought of going to the middle aisle of my supermarket, suddenly felt as dangerous as visiting the reactor core of Chernobyl”
“I felt like a lepper unable to be part of the community any longer”
These are just some of the responses people have shared with me as to how they initially felt.
For many people, that letter was what made the pandemic feel so different to what everyone else in the population was facing. For a lot of people it didn’t come as a huge surprise given the severity of their pre-existing condition, however for many others it was a big surprise.
Suddenly a managed health condition, potentially well maintained by medication and the odd check-up no longer felt safe and controlled. When a letter or text is sent directly to you highlighting grave risk, it can feel very personal yet cold all at once. It’s the black and white text without tone or much context that left so much open for interpretation. For many it was read as a message of “If you go outside & come into contact with people, you are not safe & could die”. There and then, the shielding community got locked nice and safely away from the rest of the community, effectively out of sight out of mind.
Restrictions, loss and significant change affected everyone in the country and of course everyone was deemed at risk of contracting the virus with varying degrees of severity. Those who were (& are) shielding were subject to enhanced restrictions to living and reduced access to support & treatment which understandably has raised feelings of neglect, anxiety and helplessness.
As a counsellor, I was given an amazing opportunity that I didn’t anticipate getting when
lockdowns first became a thing. Through remote online and telephone counselling sessions, I have been supporting the shielding community with their mental health through an
amazing CIC (Community Interest Company) called ShieldUs (www.shieldus.org.uk).
ShieldUs has a mission to alleviate shielding anxiety, to raise awareness and fund therapy for those most in need through their circumstance. ShieldUs have created a most necessary online community providing a variety of support for those who have been unable to leave the home or have face to face contact with those who would ordinarily support them or offer respite from a situation.
Why is an organisation like ShieldUs so necessary? It gives a feeling of community, inclusion and hope. When you are locked away from everyone else and the outside feels too risky on the back of what you were initially told, it is only natural to feel cut off and ostracised. When you include daily briefings as one of your only sources of inclusion to the outside world, it is easy to feel short of hope. People in the ShieldUs community have many others they can turn to in similar situations to them and gain valuable information on services they can access for support or advice.
ShieldUs has provided a source of light for thousands who have felt lost in the dark of their own homes, providing hope, awareness and togetherness to those deserving of equality within the community.