Pandemic 'shines even brighter spotlight on mental health'

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on Saturday, mental health services have never been more important

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Ahead of World Mental Health Day on Saturday (October 10), mental health services have never been more important amid a pandemic that’s precipitated a global mental health crisis.

But even as more people need help with their mental health, which has been taken a huge hit by widespread job losses, isolation and disruption to so many people’s daily routines, the pandemic has also meant many mental health services have been severely disrupted.

Global disruption

A new survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted mental health services in 93 per cent of countries globally at time when demand for such services has skyrocketed.

A significant majority of countries, over 60 per cent, reported disruptions in mental health services for vulnerable people, with 72 per cent reporting disruptions to services for young people, 70 per cent saying services for older adults had been affected, and 60 per cent reporting disruptions to mental health care for women requiring antenatal and postnatal services.

Nearly 70 per cent of those surveyed said they had seen reductions counselling and psychotherapy services, with almost just as many seeing disruptions to critical harm reduction services. Just under half – 45  per cent – said treatment for opioid addiction had also been impacted.

The WHO’s survey is published ahead of its Big Event for Mental Health, to take place on World Mental Health Day. It is expected to be the biggest online advocacy event of its kind, where the global community will join together and call for increased investment in mental health services – anyone is welcome to join.

Also calling for an increase in investment in mental health services, a group representing leaders in the NHS has sounded the alarm over an increase in people presenting with severe mental health problems in the UK.

“If you leave problems they get worse”

In August, the NHS Confederation published a report that found that doctors have seen a substantial increase of people reporting severe mental health difficulties. At the height of the pandemic, mental health referrals plummeted as people shied away from using NHS to relieve pressure on the service and also avoid catching the Covid-19 virus.

It is understood that the rise in people with severe mental health problems recently can in part be attributed to people’s conditions deteriorating after not getting the help they needed during lockdown.

“A&E numbers were down, GP numbers were down. The same occurred in some of our mental health services,” NHS Confederation mental health lead Sean Duggan told the BBC.

“The concern is, if you leave problems they can get worse.”

The NHS Confederation report also highlighted that more people would be seeking mental health treatment as a direct result of the pandemic itself as so many have battled isolation, substance use, domestic violence and economic uncertainty this year.

“Although being away from the political spotlight, mental health services across the country have faced unprecedented challenges due to coronavirus which they have responded to remarkably by innovating and moving to different ways of working to protect their patients and staff,” Duggan explained.

“But we must not be fooled into thinking that the worst is behind us,” he added. There is a rising tide in demand for NHS-funded mental healthcare associated with the pandemic, which we expect to remain high for some time and will be felt long after the physical health crisis across acute and community care subsides.

“Providers are facing this with reduced capacity across their services, with significant funding constraints, and with a workforce that is close to burnout due to vacancy levels and the pressures placed upon them.

“If these issues are not addressed, it could overwhelm services and lead to people having to wait longer for mental health support and their conditions deteriorating,” Duggan warned.

Health and care workers in mental health crisis

There is also growing concern about the mental health crisis facing frontline health and care workers, who have had to do their jobs in extremely traumatic circumstances over the last few months.

Frontline health and care workers working throughout the pandemic are at as great a risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as soldiers returning from war and victims of terror attacks, a doctor told the House of Lords last month.

Dr Michael Bloomberg head of a translational psychiatry research group at the University College London, pointed to current data which shows that PTSD rates for health and care workers, alongside survivors of severe Covid-19, sits at 20 per cent, and for anxiety and depression this rises to 30 per cent.

“The available data indicates that the risk of PTSD amongst health and social care workers and patients who survived severe Covid is of a similar magnitude as those surviving other mass casualty events such as terrorist attacks, or as is seen in military personnel who’ve returned from war,” he told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. “There’s therefore an imminent need to both detect and treat the survivors of psychological trauma.”

Ahead of World Mental Health Day, Unite lead professional officer for mental health Dave Munday said the importance of properly funding mental health services now was never more vital – and also explained how Unite has worked to support members’ mental health.

“Covid-19 has shone an even brighter spotlight on mental health,” he said. “Whilst the Centre for Mental Health have assessed that up to 10 million people – almost 20% of the population – will need mental health support as a result of the pandemic we must not forget that the services that people needed before March of this year we’re not sufficiently well funded for the demands at that point.

“Coronavirus will further entrench the disadvantages faced by minoritized groups in our society and will be of no surprise to Unite members,” he added. “It makes the work being done nationally to support members even more important.

“Health sector workers themselves have shown how Covid-19 is resting on top of very difficult circumstances,” Munday went on to say. “For example one area that Unite/Mental Health Nurses Association has been working on is the distressing research that shows female nurses, pre-Covid-19, had a risk of suicide 23 per cent above the risk in women in other occupations.

“Whilst our members have been less able to come together to support each other in person, we have developed new resources for members so they can come together virtually including our popular weekly #mhTV on the Unite/MHNA Facebook page. Any Unite member is welcome to get involved.”

You can find out more about #mhTV on the Unite/MHNA Facebook page here.

By Hajera Blagg

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