Harry’s Story

Eight Camden residents were invited to participate in the Healthwatch Camden work to collect case studies about life under lockdown. Each individual agreed to be interviewed once a week over six weeks so that we could hear whether and how things changed for them as the weeks of lockdown continued. All names have been changed to protect identities and all participants have given permission for their stories to be published.

Harry is a student at the University of London and is living in student accommodation in Camden. He is transgender and lives with a disability. He also lives with mental health issues.

At the time of his first interview, Harry was struggling with the impact of lockdown which confined him to his student room, bringing back memories of a period earlier in life when he suffered from severe depression and anxiety.

It feels like I’ve gone back years to when I’d dropped out of school due to bullying and gender identity issues and was living in my bedroom. Before lockdown, I was starting to recover something of adult life. Now it feels like I have lost everything I had achieved and am back just to live in my room,” he says. “During the first couple of weeks I felt suicidal — I felt what is the point of having made the progress I have?

“My early experiences of mental health services meant I lost trust. So now I don’t want to reach out to any services other than things I really need. Instead, I have learnt a lot of self-care techniques. The support in Camden might be good but I am hesitant to reach out because of my bad experiences.”

Lockdown also presented Harry with some immediate practical challenges in maintaining his regular treatment:

I have an NHS prescription for hormone replacement therapy from a gender identity clinic but some GPs refuse to fulfil the prescriptions for me or challenge me on it. GPs often don’t know anything about transgender people at all. I had to change my GP practice 3 times because of being refused treatment.  So now I’ve signed on to GP at Hand. I have a regular injection prescribed through GP at hand which I collect from a pharmacy then go and have it injected at a separate place.

During COVID-19, the pharmacy to which my prescription is normally sent was closed. So I had to go back via GP at Hand and get it sent elsewhere. In the end, I was able to get the hormone injection at a clinic that was open. But it was a disruption to the process I thought I had finally got sorted so it was very worrying. I have to rely on a chain of GP, pharmacist and clinic so there are three things that can go wrong.

Harry is living in a student block so finds it hard to isolate as he shares a kitchen and toilet. “All the social distancing information assumes you are in a home of your own. There’s nothing to advise people like me who are sharing a toilet with 15 others. The security guards are on edge. We are fighting in the student union for more clarity on what the university should be doing for us. It would be nice to have an advice page on a website for students self-isolating in halls. I think student halls are an area that’s been very neglected.”

Harry is not too worried about getting the information he needs although he thinks the government advice is confusing and contradictory.

It would be good to have more information about what’s open and available in terms of services — for example, dentists. But if I really need something I will search the internet.” He has joined the local mutual aid WhatsApp group as a volunteer. “But there are hardly any people who need help compared to the number of volunteers!”

He does, however, have worries about his studies. “It’s been really hard to find out what the new arrangements are for coursework. I need advice on how to adapt my dissertation to the circumstances. The University didn’t have comprehensive and clear advice on what should be happening. But my biggest worry is that I might find my mental health getting worse because of this. I am more anxious than before and not seeing people and having activities to go to is affecting my mood.”

By the following week, Harry was feeling better. Linking with Extinction Rebellion protesters had been fun, connecting him with other people and giving him a sense of doing something for a good cause. “Today I’m actually feeling really good,” he says. “I am part of a protest. We are occupying an area under a tree to save it from being cut down. We are sitting carefully apart with deck chairs wearing masks and hand sanitising and limiting the number of protesters on-site at any one time.”

Harry found that getting outside had been positive in many ways. “I’ve actually found I’ve been so much more productive with my coursework because of getting out under the tree. I don’t deal with change well at the best of times so dealing with the sudden and unwarranted change has been hard. I am on the autistic spectrum and have ADHD which I think has made it harder for me to adapt — to keep up with the hardest aspects of everyday life like having a sleep routine, shopping, food and study while I can’t do the fun things that keep me going like socialising, visiting museums.”

To help support himself, Harry had explored an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course offered free by the university but had decided it was not suitable for him. However, he welcomed a well-being email that had been circulated to students. “Usually it’s just telling us there are counsellors available but now it’s got better at offering links to resources. This is good. I wish they’d been doing more of that before. Getting their act together.”

Harry reported that he had ventured to travel by bus. He found the experience interesting. “It was weird because it was a combination of politeness and hostility. Everyone eyeing up — don’t come closer. I normally find physical contact difficult but find that being close together is easier on public transport because, strangely, there is no social aspect to the touching or acknowledgement of personal space with everyone just shoved close together. But now suddenly that self-consciousness about personal space has come onto the bus too.”

By the time of his next interview, Harry had big news to report. “I’m really happy because I’m moving out of student halls into a flat. I’m lucky that I was able to figure out online ways to flat search. The properties I looked at had been empty for quite a while. Because of COVID-19, you can’t view when people are in.”

He has also made good progress with his studies. “I finished my last coursework essay so now I’m getting on with my dissertation. I prefer using online resources so not being able to use the library is not a problem for me.”

He’s also been accessing some university meetings that had been shifted from live to an online platform and using the phone to follow up on things like career advice. “Something that is interesting about lockdown is that I’m not so anxious about phone calls anymore because I’m having to do so many of them.”

Harry has been using outdoor spaces more and more. “I can go to the park and work. I can be more productive than when I’m sitting in my student room. I am so depressed sitting inside the room and I feel safer outside I feel as long as I am taking infection control measures — keeping distance, washing hands — I shouldn’t have to restrict my activities anymore.”

Life moves fast when you’re a student and by the following week, there were more new things going on for Harry. “I’ve been on the Black Lives Matter protests and my samba band is starting to get back together. We’ll practice at a distance in the local park and break into smaller groups.”

I have definitely been feeling better — not trapped and aimless anymore. It really does feel like there will be an end to this. At the start of lockdown, it really felt forever. Now it doesn’t’ feel such a long time anymore.”

He’s also been busy sorting out arrangements to move into his own rented flat. “It’s involved lots of online stuff and I’ve had to talk my mum through everything in terms of sending me documents and she doesn’t do online so that’s been difficult. Everything is harder when you are not digitally fluent.

Harry does have some concerns about the easing of lockdown. “I feel worried about what easing is going to mean for the general population. I am not worried about my own health. My living conditions mean I can’t realistically self-isolate anyway so I am resigned and I’m not in touch with people who are particularly vulnerable. I know I shouldn’t be getting lazy about infection control but I find I’m just not thinking about it so much which is not good. But then I know it’s so much better for my mental health to get out. This is what has changed in the last couple of weeks. People are now prioritising things other than the pandemic.”

At the time of the final interview, Harry was about to move into his new flat.

I feel like my life is getting back to normal. I was worried that the usual activities that I am involved in would never start and it might be the last time I would see my friends from University. Some of them are graduating and so there is a feeling of loss. It could have been an amazing summer. It’s been the first time I felt like a normal functioning adult and Covid-19 took that away from me. But it could have been a lot worse.”

Harry is very aware of the different trajectories being experienced by different people. “I realise for me it’s going to be a lot faster to get back to normal than for some groups of people.”

He’s having to make changes to his future plans for doing a PhD. “I should have been going to India but I can’t do that because of the situation. So now I have an alternative PhD plan about how we use music in activism and working with the activist Samba community which is much closer to what I really want to do. So, in fact, the COVID-19 situation has been an opportunity to step back and think about what my priorities are.”

I think I’ve stopped paying attention to government information. It feels arbitrary and irrelevant now. I know what I can do to protect myself and others and we just need to follow the lead from community and friends about what we need to keep safe and look after each other.”

You can read all of the 8 Personal Stories in the COVID-19 Report ‘Life in Lockdown.’