Frederick Shepherd is a former Parliamentary researcher.
I wrote for this website in April that COVID-19 could spark the beginning of a mental health crisis, and it has sadly proven true.
Recently published data by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that twice as many adults in Britain are reporting symptoms of depression compared with this time last year. Where one in ten people appeared to have depressive symptoms before the pandemic, the number is now one in five.
The findings of the survey of more than 3,500 adults, followed up over a 12-month period and asked a set of standardised questions, including a range of symptoms relating to sleep, appetite, a loss of interest and pleasure in doing things, and difficulty concentrating. Alarmingly, almost 20 per cent of people met the criteria for depression based on their responses in June 2020, compared with just under ten per cent between July 2019 and March 2020.
Whilst the findings don’t equate to formal diagnoses or mean that individuals are necessarily clinically depressed, they certainly show a decline in “wellness” and that more people would likely meet the diagnostic criteria for depression and have treatment recommended to them were they to be assessed in clinical settings.
The NHS has a good range of treatments for depression and GP’s will often recommend lifestyle changes too. These include anti-depressant medications (SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs); talking therapy (such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offered through the NHS Improving Access Psychological Therapy (IAPT) service); and specialist therapy through Community Mental Health Team’s (CMHT). A range of ‘other treatments’ such as Mindfulness or Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) are all available.
Apart front front-line treatments, GPs also ‘prescribe’ so-called lifestyle changes in the form of diet, exercise, social support and routine – including gainful employment – as methods of lifting a patients mood.
Yet with a 10-30 per cent (Guardian Research) reduction in the current capacity of NHS mental health services, 48 per cent of people reporting putting on weight during lockdown (Kings College London/Ipsos Mori), continued restrictions on social interactions, and four per cent of the workforce unemployed (ONS), both traditional clinical and “lifestyle-based” treatment options for mental health issues have faced severe disruption.
With this disruption comes recent news from The Centre for Mental Health, who are estimating a rise in demand of 500,000 people over the next two years. An influx of this scale on services that were already stretched will see patients facing even longer delays or being left without treatment at all.
With long-term prognoses for untreated depression (as with many mental health conditions) resulting in considerably worse patient outcomes, this therefore has significant implications for many people’s mental and physical health, as well as for their partners, families, employers, communities, local economies and wider society. The treatment of mental illness is, in this respect, time critical. The Government must step in to help and do so now.
Ministers should devise a comprehensive ‘Covid-19 Mental Health and Wellness Package’ to cope with the extra burden caused by the virus: a ‘One Nation’ initiative for the country’s mental health, supplementing it’s protection for the NHS and the economy with a more person-centred focus on the individual citizen.
Such a programme, announced by a popular Chancellor whilst interest rates are low, could be a major boon to the Tory brand, ‘levelling up’ mental health provision and tapping into the ‘wellness’ zeitgeist in modern politics. Funds could be split between NHS mental health services, local government, community and third sector organisations, and private wellness and health-based organisations most impacted by the pandemic, and targeted to areas with high levels of cumulative deprivation and existing demand for services, and that are most likely to be hit by further unemployment.
NHS England spent an extra £12.4 billion in real terms on mental health services over the last three years and an extra 120,000 patients have been seen. Whatever ministers decide to do in response to the rising mental health crisis from Covid, it can’t be nothing: the numbers of people requiring treatment and the wider impact of delay on society are only going to grow.
The Government has done what it can to protect the NHS through increasing Intensive Care Units (ICU) capacity; it has done what it can to protect jobs and the economy through the furlough and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ schemes. It must now do what it can to protect our national mental health – before further damage is done.