CORONAVIRUS has affected many people’s mental health, but one community has fought back with a new buddy system and outdoor concerts to help combat loneliness and isolation.

The last 15-months have no doubt been gruelling, challenging and worrying for everyone across the globe but when faced with such difficulty, one group of dedicated volunteers decided to take action and ensure no-one was left behind.

James Hunt, founder of Nanny Biscuit, set up a community group with a team of hard-working volunteers to ensure the elderly and vulnerable were not left behind.

Branching from this came the buddy call system, which allows volunteers to phone people who are struggling for a phone call every week.

To date, 250 have been helped through this charity service, which for some people is their ‘only form of contact’.

Mr Hunt said: “For some people it’s the only voice they are hearing so you can imagine it has been life-saving. I can’t imagine how beneficial it has been.

“I felt there was a need for it. In times like this, the community should come together, that for me is the only way we can make a difference.

“Having people call us up, thanking us, it’s just heart-warming. If you want to help but don’t know how to then join a local organisation.

“We can all do so much more. The NHS is wonderful, but it’s underfunded. At the start of the pandemic, people were struggling to get their prescriptions, which we helped with, but we had people not trained in this field.

“There 100% should be plans in place for getting people to their medicine, people were genuinely struggling in all ways. People needed us.

“Going forward, comes down to being more visual, checking in on our neighbours, phoning our relatives you haven’t spoken to, coming together and having more compassion.”

Mr Hunt said unless things are put in place to carry these lessons on, he fears it will eventually be forgotten about and people will go back to how they were pre-pandemic.

He added: “But we can’t forget, there are people who can’t go back to normal, who this will affect for years to come.

“There’s an opportunity here whilst it is still fresh, whether it is taught better in schools I don’t know. The buddy system is here to stay as long as we can see a need for it.

“When our volunteers make these calls they form a personal relationship, it’s not just someone they have to ring, it’s someone they want to ring, someone they care about.”

Mr Hunt said there are also plans to re-start ‘Covid concerts’ outside of care homes in the summer, so elderly and vulnerable residents are getting some form of social interaction.

Care home residents would enjoy a socially distanced, outdoor ‘Covid Concert’ with performances from entertainment acts.

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Mr Hunt said after a successful response last year, they hope to re-start the events and bring joy to those residents who are amongst those who have struggled immensely.

Care home staff and residents faced gruelling restrictions, unable to see their loved ones but these Covid secure concerts brought ‘joy and smiles’ during a worrying time.

Councillor Helen Brown, of Flintshire's Aston Ward, quickly jumped on board to help the group and praised volunteers for their efforts.

She said: "We very quickly got together in March 2020, which seems a lifetime away now and I'm so glad I got involved, not only helping with others mental health but also keeping myself busy.

"The whole team literally hit the ground running and no task was too big, where there was will, there was a way. There are many highlights but the absolute one for me was the Covid concerts at local care homes, the way the team, the artists, the care home staff all worked so hard together to make the events happen was amazing.

"To bring the joy that we did for the residents who were shielding and had not had any entertainment for months is something that will stay with me forever. Musicians that has not been able to entertain for months, they all came together. The residents absolutely loved it, we all did.

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"It brought joy to us all to see people singing along and dancing and just putting a smile of faces, the carers who have worked so hard during lockdown, everyone. The negative impact the restrictions have been on us all have been so hard, not seeing loved ones for months, luckily I live by my parents and that was so hard in the beginning with family members having to shield.

"To bring a smile to peoples faces, whether it was just taking their food delivery orders, the buddy callers spending time and providing a caring ear to talk and to listen, helping out with the garden at Deeside Hospital as the regular gardener was also shielding.

"So many people got involved to help their mental health and to help improve those around us. Just taking that little bit of extra time to make sure people are ok or as ok as they can be really, it's an honour to work with like-minded people.

"The excellent work of Nanny Biscuit continues and is having such a positive impact on everyone. I knew at the very beginning of the lockdown, I had to do something, I can't sit still and I knew I needed to help those around me. We all need help at sometime in our life. The community came together when it was needed the most."

As restrictions once again begin to ease, people are reunited with their loved ones and visiting indoor venues, and a surge of vaccinations is bringing us closer to a safer future, but will returning to ‘normal’ be as easy as we think it is?

The pandemic put a halt on life as we knew it, but non-urgent GP services were postponed in a bid to keep the public safe.

According to ONS data released on May 5, 2021, around one in five adults experiences some form of depression from January 27 to March 7. This is an increase since November 2020 and more than double that before the pandemic.

Disabled (39%) and clinically extremely vulnerable adults (31%) were more likely to experience some form of depression.

From March 23 to August 31 2020, the number of GP diagnosed depression cases decreased which corresponds with a fall in the overall number of GP diagnoses.

However, in 2020 depression diagnoses as a whole were slightly higher than in the corresponding period in 2019.

But this is only reported cases of people reaching out for help. Many people will ‘suffer in silence’.

The fear of the unknown as well as grim restrictions placed on society, we went from taking our freedoms for granted to being cooped up inside, scared to go outside. The effects on mental health have been profound, with it heightening struggles for some, but also people who had never suffered ill mental health before also found themselves in new territory.

But as life gradually begins to open up, everyone deserves to feel safe and secure and should go at their own pace, says Lynne Chick.

Lynne, who lives in Hawarden, has suffered with anxiety for over 20 years and agoraphobia for seven years, which she says was definitely heightened by the pandemic and lockdown.

She said: “Whereas people were getting cabin fever, I fitted back into a lifestyle I’d been in before. The summer was a lot easier than the winter but I found my own ways of coping.

“I used social media, I was in contact with family and made ridiculous TikTok videos to make other people laugh because other people’s welfare was more important than my own.

“But some people, like the elderly, didn’t have that so it must have been so much more difficult for them. And now there’s still so much uncertainty over whether more restrictions or another lockdown will be imposed in the future.

Denbighshire Free Press: Lynne Chick's fabulosa collection

“During lockdown I did all my shopping online and washed everything down. I’m still home shopping now because big stores are too much for me, it’s alien now with people touching things and putting them back but if I do go out, I always carry a mini disinfectant.

“It’s a bit extreme to some people but for some people, it’s a way to cope. I’m sanitising my hands every five-minutes, but in my head it’s keeping me safe. It’s not just Covid germs I’m afraid of anymore, it’s everything. Trains and bus seats, public handles, my mind is on overdrive.”

Lynne said lockdowns would have been tough on the vulnerable and elderly and if restrictions were to be imposed in the future, she urges people to not suffer alone and to reach out for help.

She added: “Use social media if you can, talk to your friends and family. If you live alone listen to the radio, it’s another voice in the house. Silence is quite difficult if you suffer depression, reach out to someone.

“People need to stop bullying and hatred and realise, everyone has different ways of coping and different opinions. We need to consider we are not all the same, we should be helping instead.

“I’d like to think the pandemic has helped raise awareness of mental health but there’s still a long way to go, people still get discriminated against.

“A bit of kindness can go a long way, people need to be mindful and think of the bigger picture and how it could be for some people.”