'My mental health took a battering:' Big rise in families seeking help from charity post-pandemic

  • ITV News Anglia's Victoria Lampard speaks to parents who felt isolated and alone during the pandemic

A charity that offers emotional and practical support to families has seen demand for its services in one county quadruple, as desperate parents seek help in the wake of the pandemic.

Home Start in Suffolk said the number of families accessing support in the county had jumped from 412 in the year before the start of the first lockdown, to 1,766 in 2022-23.

The rise has been similarly steep in Essex, where the figure has gone from 500 to 869 households in the same period, while in Norfolk, it has nearly doubled from 236 to 414.

Volunteers from the charity provide assistance to families through things such as home visits, and setting up baby and toddler groups so that parents, and their children, can mingle with like-minded people.

However, during the Covid lockdowns, these services were impacted heavily by the restrictions of the time - leading to many parents having to fend for themselves.

Alpha now receives home visits from volunteers to help her look after her three children. Credit: ITV News Anglia

“So many parents either became first-time parents during the pandemic, or they had a few months of groups and then all of those services closed, and since then, it takes a lot to get your confidence back if you’ve not done that on a regular basis," explained chief executive Tara Spence.

"I think people's mental health has really suffered during the pandemic. People just haven’t got that back yet into a place where they feel confident enough to come back out.”

Mum-of-three Alpha Thomas, 34, is now receiving face-to-face support from the charity, but found herself in a dark place during the pandemic.

With her partner taking on long hours as a key worker, she had to juggle working from home and caring for her children, two of whom have additional needs.

It is a battle she often had to fight alone, and one that took a huge toll on her mental health.

The charity runs baby and toddler groups like this one at Whitehouse Baptist Church in Ipswich. Credit: ITV News Anglia

"My mental health did take a battering and I’m not ashamed to say I did have to go on antidepressants a few times over the course of that period," she told ITV News Anglia.

"I’ve had to seek therapy. There was a few really dark times going through that and not having anyone to share that with was really hard.”

Ms Thomas said that she had now started to rebuild her confidence - thanks in part to the "life-changing" help she has had from the charity.

Since restrictions have been lifted, a volunteer has been visiting her flat to offer a much-needed extra pair of hands, and she also now regularly attends play groups in Ipswich as well - positive steps which have helped her overcome her anxiety.

"Having this volunteer come in, and just even hold [youngest son] Elijah, while I dealt with Noah [one of her other sons] was just life-changing," she said.

"It doesn't feel like I'm on my own any more which is nice."

Other parents at the session in Suffolk echoed Ms Thomas's feelings.

Janine Ingham, pictured with one-year-old Ezra, is a regular at Home Start in Suffolk's sessions. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Janine Ingham had her first child during the pandemic - a period she remembers as “horrible”.

“You had nowhere to go. It was quite hard because there wasn’t anything; there was no support… I just felt alone,” she said.

After discovering Home Start in Suffolk, she has been coming to the charity's children's groups for years, and says the support has made a huge difference.

"It's brilliant. Because I've got three of them, all the girls here will help out and look after them."

Abidemi Agboola, 32, with her 14-month-old daughter Joy. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Abidemi Agboola, whose children are now seven, three and 14 months, was stuck at home during her second pregnancy, and said the pandemic had been "challenging".

"You couldn't go out, you couldn't interact with other mums," she told ITV News Anglia.

"When we were told to start going out, it really gave me so much anxiety to step out, because I was really scared for my baby relating with other children and other people outside, so it was quite depressing for me."

She said she had seen long-lasting effects among other mothers, but she was enjoying normal life once more.

Despite the big rise in households asking for help, the charity is urging any parents who feel that they need support, to continue to ask for it.

"What is really positive is that people are beginning to look for their own support," said chief executive Ms Spence.

"We would welcome those referrals and being able to support those people that really need it."

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