When 22-year-old Calum Kennedy fell ill with coronavirus in March 2020 at St Andrews university, he had no idea it would change the course of his life.
A fit and active cyclist and athlete, he had no classic Covid symptoms and nobody even mentioned he might have the condition until six weeks into his illness.
Calum, who was in his final year studying Economics, explains: “I had fatigue, shortness of breath, tachycardia (irregular heartbeat), insomnia and muscle aches from May 2020 onwards. It was hard to access help, as no-one seemed to know what to do with me.”
Calum’s story is not unique says Thistle, a Scottish charity supporting people with long-term health conditions. Long Covid accounts for 15% of their referrals since December 2020 and there is rising demand for their services as people struggle to cope.
ONS figures show more than a million people in the UK have reported Long Covid symptoms. A study led by a Dundee professor is also looking into the long-term effects of the condition on people in Scotland.
For Calum it has been more than a year of feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression, latterly with the support of Thistle.
“The independence-limiting effects of my symptoms were extremely challenging to cope with,” Calum explains. “I noticed a strong link between my mental state and my perceptions of my physical health.
“Being unwell for so long, I often felt I was not making progress – or that I would never recover at all.
“It was made harder by not being able to see my friends through lockdown – and when I did speak to them, I didn’t want to dump how bad I was feeling on them.”
Calum managed to complete his Economics degree, but had to put plans to do a Masters in Cambridge on hold and move from Fife to his parents’ home in Edinburgh.
Then Calum’s dad heard another young man interviewed on the radio. He was suffering from Long Covid and being supported by Thistle.
Calum says: “I made contact with Thistle and started having regular telephone conversations with Angela, my Wellbeing Practitioner.
“It was extremely reassuring to be able to talk to someone about my fears about my condition, alongside learning techniques and strategies to manage symptoms and improve my mental health.
“On Angela’s advice, I enrolled on an eight-week Thistle mindfulness course. The in-depth approach and regular practice was extremely rewarding as was meeting other people who understood what I was going through.”
With Thistle’s support, Calum says he has put an end to his cycle of self-blame.
“Thankfully, over the past few months I have noticed several positive changes in my mental and physical condition, which have allowed me to gradually increase my activity levels.
“I was able to spend some time with my girlfriend in Fife, I’ve started running again and hope to start my Masters later this year.
“Thanks to the incredible support I have received from Thistle, I now have confidence that at some point in the future I will be able to make a full recovery.”
Ross Grieve, Thistle’s Health and Wellbeing Manager, says: “We have had an increasing number of referrals of people struggling with persistent, debilitating fatigue after having Covid in recent months.
“Even people who experienced mild symptoms of Covid, and those who expected to bounce back quickly due to their age and fitness, are finding themselves stuck with ongoing symptoms of fatigue, weakness, disturbed sleep and pain.
“No one has to struggle with this alone. With early support and advice and by making some short-term adjustments, most people are able to recover well and avoid this health crisis becoming a life crisis.”
Anyone in Scotland who is experiencing symptoms of longer-term post-viral fatigue, whether Long Covid or another viral infection, can self-refer to Thistle or ask their GP or other healthcare professional to refer them.