This week’s interview is with Amanda Woods, a UK volunteer who participated in the Imperial College London COVID-19 challenge study. We discussed her experience, as well as Amanda’s studies in psychology, the state of mental health care in the UK, and her love of aerial circus arts.
Gavriel: Can you tell me about yourself and where you’re from?
Amanda: I grew up in a little seaside town in Essex, and I’ve been living in London for about seven years now. I’m studying psychology at the University of Greenwich, and I also work part-time for the English National Opera with their performance duty management team. I’ll be there in the evening to assist people and make sure everything is running as it should be. I have quite a few hobbies. I run a home baking business with my twin sister. We’ve been doing that for a few years now, and it really picked up during the lockdown. I’m really into circus arts, dance, and ice skating.
Gavriel: Namunji [Matale] from 1Day Africa is also running a home baking business! It’s so cool to see these connections between people across the world. How did you learn about 1Day Sooner?
Amanda: During the pandemic, me and my friend would go on weekly walks around the park. She’d seen an advert for the challenge trials in the newspaper, so we were talking about that and looking into it further. 1Day Sooner came up, and they were holding a town hall with Julia [Murdza], and it just went from there.
Gavriel: You participated in the Imperial College London challenge trial–can you explain your decision process?
Amanda: Initially it was my friend who was excited about taking part, but she wasn’t eligible. The more we talked about it, the more it caught my interest and seemed like something I wanted to do. It was circumstantial, really–I’d recently lost my dad and also my job, and I was looking for something positive to do. This seemed perfect. I had the time and the interest, and it worked out. It’s something I would absolutely do again.
Gavriel: It sounds like a really hard time. I’m glad you were able to find something that helped. Had you been thinking about these types of issues previously?
Amanda: Not really. I hadn’t heard of a challenge trial, but the situation came up and the more I looked into it, the more interesting it seemed. It was completely new to me. There were a lot of risks involved in taking part and I would do it again even if it had a [negative] effect on me. The outcome was greater than the risks of taking part.
Gavriel: Can you describe your experience in the trial?
Amanda: When I first got there, the first couple of days were really hard. On the second day, I was still waiting to find out if I could continue, and part of me was thinking, “I don’t think I can.” It was a massive shock. I’d prepared myself as much as I could and spoken to other people who had participated already, so I kind of knew what to expect, but I think the experience of being in there and not having the same control over things I usually have just sort of hit me. It was a bit like homesickness. But overall, I had a really good experience. I’ve heard contrasting things from other people, but I was lucky it didn’t affect my health too much and it was comfortable. People were really nice and I had plenty to do, so I don’t have anything bad to say about the experience. After the second day, it was fine. I settled into more of a routine and it became my normal for the next couple of weeks. I knew what I was doing, I accepted it, and I relaxed.
Gavriel: How have you felt about the long pause between your participation and any public updates from the trial team?
Amanda: To be honest, I don’t really know what to expect or how it works. I don’t know if I should’ve expected to hear anything between now and then. I would like to have seen some effect from it, maybe. It’s been quite a long time. I did see a lot of articles that the study started, but nothing about the effects. [Alastair and Jacob] seem to have so much insight into challenge trials, but that’s something I’m still learning about. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to both of them, it would have been a very different experience.
Gavriel: How did speaking to them influence your thought process?
Amanda: It just made it feel a lot more normal in a way. Speaking to somebody face to face about it makes such a difference. Before that I was just on the phone with somebody from the team talking about what to expect, but talking to someone who participated reassured me, “you’re a normal person and it’s okay.” It’s nice to know that it’s not as scary as it might seem. I would love to be able to speak to other participants as well to know what made them take part and what their experience was like. Speaking to other people about it might help me process things a bit more. Just speaking to my friends or family about it is difficult because they don’t fully understand. They don’t have the context or know the full extent of it. I think a lot of people are unaware of what taking part in a challenge trial is like. Some people I know see it as something really dangerous whilst others assume you’re spending two weeks in bed watching TV. Whilst neither view is completely inaccurate, there is so much more to it than that. It can take a lot out of you and it’s easy to forget that it’s kind of a big deal. It was such a short period of time but such a big part of my year, and is still a big part of my life.
Gavriel: What changes in public health or health policy would you like to see?
Amanda: I’m really passionate about mental health and taking it in a new direction. Mental health services need to be updated; I think treatments need to be way more accessible to so many people and more informal, community services are needed. This is something that needs to be destigmatized, and the whole process of treatment needs to be looked at. If someone needs help, they usually go speak to a GP [general practitioner] and get referred, and go through the process but it’s kind of narrow, and issues are overlooked. And when people do get the help they need, they’re often let down by that help because of outdated policies and a lack of communication and individualized care. If someone’s at a critical point, the help in those settings is lacking. I think shared decision making is essential to help people feel more engaged and in control of their treatment. What works well for one person, might not work for another.
Gavriel: Since you’re studying psychology, are you hoping to be part of some changes?
Amanda: I’m still trying to figure out where I want to go with it, but that is something I definitely want to use my training and knowledge for in the future. It won’t take one person to fix these issues, but a good start would be to make mental health counseling a lot more accessible. I know there are a lot of programs starting up for people to get support, which is great, but there needs to be a lot more like that where people can go on an everyday basis without such a [long] process to get help.
Gavriel: What’s the pandemic situation like where you are right now?
Amanda: Face masks are mandatory. The rule is you should be wearing a mask unless you’re at a table in a restaurant or cafe. That’s the most restrictive it is at the moment. In everyday situations, it’s noticeable that more and more people are getting [COVID]. For the most part, people are being cautious. It’s better than this time a year ago, in the sense that businesses can open and other aspects of the country are running the way they need to. We’re not in as bad of a place as I would have imagined, given the [case count]. It’s odd, considering that every third person I know has COVID. You wouldn’t necessarily know we’re in that situation because people are just carrying on as normal. That’s good, but it’s odd.
Gavriel: Is there an anti-vax movement in Britain?
Amanda: Yeah, there’s a large amount of people who are actively anti-vax. People have a lot of different reasons for still not choosing to be vaccinated even though so many places require it. I’ve not spoken to anyone personally about why, but I have one family member who is currently not getting the vaccine, not because they’re actively anti-vax but because they’re worried for their own health about getting it, and it’s more confusion about the whole situation, not really knowing much about it. I’ve heard from other people–Facebook friends–who have almost conspiracy theories. I would love to speak to them personally, but I haven’t really had the chance. I don’t expect to change their mind, but I’d love to find out the thought process behind it. I can’t blame them for not trusting the government, but what I do trust is the opinion of health professionals, which is ultimately where the vaccine is coming from.
Gavriel: What’s something you love about where you live?
Amanda: So many things! Living in London, the main thing is there is always something to do. There are so many places to go, and there’s always somebody to meet for coffee or a walk. It’s such a vast space. If you want to see a musical randomly one night or take a boat down the Thames, you can just decide to do that.
Gavriel: What are some things you’re curious about?
Amanda: At the moment I’m most passionate about what I’m studying. Something I’ve heard people talk about before is mental health first aid, and it’s something I’d like to learn about more and how it can be incorporated into everyday areas, the way people train in first aid generally.
Gavriel: Back to the circus arts, what got you into that?
Amanda: I’ve always loved going to the circus. I used to go watch the circus when I was younger. The reason I moved to London originally was to get into the performing arts, and there was one opportunity I was involved with where there were an enormous amount of circus performers and I thought, “I want to do that,” so I did! I found a circus center that was running classes and took part, and it’s something I’ve done since. During the summer, me and my sister were able to get an A-Frame (similar to a swing set) to practice in the garden, and that was such a great thing to have during lockdown. I love aerial arts, like trapeze. Then I also figure skate–I’ve skated since I was young, and it’s something I’ve just brought with me.