Special Report: Don’t underestimate the importance of holidays to mental health

Natalie Marsh speaks to travel agents about the impact they have seen with their own customers, as Travel Weekly marks World Mental Health Day

It’s likely we’ve all uttered the words “I need a holiday” on many occasions since March 2020. The past year and a half, whether it has been full of work or furlough, stress or boredom, chaos or loneliness, will have pushed most of us to a point where we’ve craved some time away from our day-to-day routines.

And travel agents are seeing this among their clients, who have been contacting them desperate for a break. “They use that expression ‘I need to get away’, not ‘I want’. It’s ‘I need to get away’,” says Ken Garrity of Ken Garrity Travel in Altrincham.

More: Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series

Half of those polled recently by AllClear Travel Insurance said their summer holiday this year was key to improving their mental health and wellbeing, with 23% saying they needed an escape to help with their anxiety. “We all have our own recipe for what keeps us mentally healthy and, for a lot of people, travel and holidays is a massive part of that blend,” says Chris O’Sullivan, head of communications and fundraising (Scotland and NI) at the Mental Health Foundation.

He says this was clear when curbs on international travel began to lift and there was a “clamour to travel” despite unpredictable restrictions.

“The fact people were prepared to risk money and sometimes other things to get away shows how important [travel] is to some people,” he adds.

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Weight off your shoulders

Having a holiday to look forward to can be just what’s needed to find a silver lining after a really difficult time for many.

“We’ve got a particular customer who works in a care home and had no time off at all throughout the pandemic,” recalls Lee Hunt, owner of Deben Travel in Suffolk.

“She came in and booked a holiday to Crete with my colleague Abi and actually cried when it was booked. It was that much of a relief that she, in her words, now had ‘something to aim for, something to look forward to’.”

This customer also phoned Deben Travel a couple of times while she was on holiday to let them know what a great time she was having. “She said ‘I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders just being here – I feel like I can breathe again, and I haven’t been able to for the last 18 months’,” Hunt says.

Jo Richards, director of Tivoli Travel, has also seen how important going away has been to holidaymakers. Speaking about some customers she booked to Crete, Richards says: “You can see the absolute relief on their faces. They’ve been working hard like everybody else through lockdown and just needed a break.”

Hunt adds that the pandemic has made him realise that it can be easy to underestimate how important a holiday can be for some customers. “You have a conversation with the customers when you’re booking, but I don’t think you really know the personal circumstances behind those customers,” he explains.

Jo Tivoli Travel

Help to holiday

Though attainable for many, going on holiday is a luxury that is out of reach for a lot of people. This is where the Family Holiday Association comes in. Since its inception 45 years ago, the charity sends families who need it most away on a break.

Mental health conditions play into the reasons why families are eligible for a break, explains Mags Rivett, director of income and engagement.

“If we’ve learnt anything from the pandemic it’s the appreciation entirely of how much we need a break,” she says. “And that’s how our families feel, but without the ability to actually go on the break.”

She says the difference that a holiday has on a family’s mental health is tangible. The charity’s research from 2019 shows that, immediately after their break, 92% felt better able to cope, with the same proportion noticing reduced stress and worries. And 91% felt more optimistic about the future.

But it doesn’t just carry benefits in the short term: 83% of families who had experienced mental health issues said they still noticed a positive difference up to a year later. Rivett says a holiday can give a much-needed confidence boost. “Having come back from a break, you feel like you can conquer the world sometimes, don’t you?” she adds.

“You feel all refreshed and, actually, for a lot of our families, that makes them feel they’re better able to access some support. “Without overdramatising this, there’s a little bit more hope for the future. There’s a glimmer on the horizon.” And for travel agents who are once again sending customers away on their holidays?

“It takes us back to why we do this job in the first place,” says Deben Travel’s Hunt. “We do this job because we enjoy it and we like seeing people happy.” Richards at Tivoli Travel points out how much of a pleasure it is to see the joy on people’s faces when they return from their holidays. “It makes me feel good if I can help somebody,” she says.

‘The holiday made us feel we could breathe again’

With health problems affecting her daughter throughout 2020, Hannah Simpson tells us how much a break helped her and her family to feel hopeful again

2020 was going to be an awesome year. We toasted in the new year, and then spent a couple of days researching and booking our summer holiday to Crete. But it wasn’t to be.

Our world imploded when, in late January, our daughter Phoebe, then 13, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. 2020 would be spent watching our baby endure brutal cancer treatment. This was our second brush with cancer; my two girls watched me go through breast cancer treatment in 2016. Life can be so cruel.

A month on, and the whole world imploded. Covid arrived, and we were forced to shield for months, confined to hospital or home, forbidden to see anyone or go anywhere.

While others were reeling from the impact of the pandemic, we were in an even darker place. May brought surgery to save Phoebe’s leg. Because of Covid, only one parent was allowed in, so we swapped in and out. Not permitted to leave our younger daughter with friends, she sat in the car all day. Our hearts broke for our girls.

We so longed to escape, but we were trapped, by cancer and Covid. And then we were approached by Momentum Children’s Charity – and they offered us a holiday in their chalet in the New Forest.

Nearing the end of chemo, we spent a blissful few days by the sea. It felt like we could breathe again. It wasn’t Crete, it was better – it was hope; a glimpse of life beyond cancer and Covid. Without that holiday we might have been broken entirely. A year on, and we have had our holiday in Crete. It was heavenly, and for many more reasons than sunshine, sand and gallons of wine.”

Hannah Simpson

Need help?

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by a mental health issue and are seeking help or advice, contact Samaritans free of charge on 116 123

Find more from Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series and if you would like to contribute , email:

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