It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The shops are all closing, I’m Netflix-and-dozing and stuck in top tier. And I can’t even go out for a beer. Cue (sanitised) jazz hands.

My friends are mostly divided into two camps right now. There are those for whom Christmas is the highlight of the annual calendar, if not the point of life itself; a month-long celebration that begins with a novelty Tinsel Tits jumper and ends with them comatose on the couch sporting a beard of Ferrero Rocher wrappers. For them, the pandemic has given cause to commence festivities ahead of schedule and they’re already on their thirteenth therapeutic viewing of Miracle on 34th Street.

Then there are those like me, the Moodolphs. We can’t muster the energy to deck the halls because we’ve expended it all merely getting out of bed every day for the past eight months. Ordinarily we love the festive season, but the uncertainty surrounding how we’ll spend Christmas Day – and with whom – has us feeling deflated.

However, there’s a third group I’m much more worried about: the lonely ones whose sense of isolation always increases in the depths of winter and who stand to feel it worse than ever this year. New figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest, unsurprisingly, that the number of people experiencing loneliness is at its peak since the March lockdown. The week after the clocks went back, 4.2 million adults "always or often" felt lonely compared to a pre-pandemic figure of 2.6 million. This will surely rise further in December, a month that normally at the very least presents opportunities for the loneliest among us to socialise at office parties or be part of the throng at a Christmas market. As we abstain from these gatherings to protect the physical health of ourselves and others, what is being done to support the deteriorating mental health that accompanies this degree of isolation?

Of course, poor mental health is not a winter-specific issue, nor is it only experienced by society’s most vulnerable. Merely existing in a global pandemic, never mind enduring the losses that come with it – of loved ones, of livelihoods, of homes – is enough to negatively impact anyone’s mental wellbeing. Many people are battling anxiety and depression for the first time, while 50 per cent of those who suffered with such conditions pre-Covid have, according to a survey by the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH), been feeling worse over the past few weeks than they did at the start of the pandemic. For those with no support network, it is especially crippling at this time of year.

There’s been a heartening amount of support for people with mental health issues from local community groups, but many – such as those centred around outdoor activities like walking and wild swimming – are weather-dependent and difficult to do when we’re shrouded in darkness come 4pm. Others, such as the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association, have had to close temporarily due to restrictions.

As beneficial as they are, we require more than these grassroots projects. We need real, substantial support; the type provided by professionals, funded by our government, which constitute more than a hurried five-minute phone call with an overworked GP.

It’s expected that this week Rishi Sunak will announce plans for a Winter Mental Health Plan, with reports that £500 million will be allocated to support NHS mental health services. But we are yet to hear if the Scottish Government plans to do anything similar, save for some additional funding for those in the adult social care sector as part of the broader Adult Social Care Winter Preparedness Plan. This is welcome, but it is not enough.

“Our latest research paints a picture of worsening mental health, a lack of information about care and treatment and real privacy issues in being able to discuss care and treatment,” says Billy Watson, chief executive at SAMH. “We must make sure people can get access to support that works for them, and that people are given clear information about how their care will be delivered as circumstances continue to change.”

One of the biggest barriers faced by those struggling with mental health difficulties is a lack of access to care. Many can’t afford private counselling, so they end up languishing on months-long waiting lists until they reach a crisis point. A surgeon at a local hospital told me months ago that while their intensive care unit had been largely empty over summer, they’d seen a notable increase in the number of patients with self-harm injuries. They were of the opinion that the deleterious effects of Covid on our mental health will reverberate long after a vaccine programme has been rolled out. I can’t help but agree.

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