Survey findings released this week by University College London reveal that a fifth of vulnerable people in the United Kingdom considered self-harming or killing themselves during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. These findings come as multiple mental health charities and official bodies are warning of a “tsunami” of new patients requesting treatment for mental health issues as the U.K.’s lockdown restrictions ease. With IFS analysis of an Understanding Society study finding that mental health has worsened by over 8% over the past 3 months, it is clear the U.K. is experiencing a mental health crisis alongside a physical health emergency.
“People are presenting for the first time with symptoms of mood disorders, such as mania, significant depressions, and psychotic episodes,” said Dr. Kate Lovett, dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Isolation, job insecurity, and relationship breakdown are thought to be the key drivers of escalating poor mental health rates. The Department of Health and Social Care have said they “recognize” the impact lockdown has had on people’s mental health and have provided £9.2 million in funding to local and national mental health charities. Nevertheless, with psychiatrists reporting a 45% drop in patients attending routine appointments due to lockdown restrictions, a new and dangerous problem has occurred: people feel unable to access available treatment options.
The U.K. population’s deterioration in mental health has not been evenly spread. As with the effects of coronavirus itself, poor mental health is particularly affecting certain social groups. 44% of British young people, for example, have reported feelings of loneliness during the coronavirus lockdown, as opposed to 25% of the overall British adult population. Javed Khan, the chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said that “the negative effects [of lockdown] could last a lifetime if [children and young people] do not have the right support for their mental health and wellbeing.”
A report by Barnardo’s suggests that feelings of exclusion from decision-making processes and lack of access to clear information around the uncertainties of coronavirus particularly affect young people. Over 50% of respondents to a Barnardo’s survey felt that information available to them on coronavirus was confusing, exacerbated their mental health problems, and was often untrustworthy.
Kooth, one of the biggest providers of NHS online mental health support, has found that corona-provoked poor mental health in children and young people has disproportionately affected those from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. During lockdown, the provider noted a near-27% increase in the number of children from ethnic minorities contacting them with suicidal thoughts, compared to an 18% increase of white users.
This inequality extends to members of BAME communities more generally. Another survey conducted by University College London, which followed 70,000 participants over a 5-week period, produced concerning results. The study found that rates of self-harm are 70% higher among minority ethnic communities than white ones, while 80% more BAME people than white people are reported to have suffered psychological or physical abuse during the coronavirus lockdown.
Systemic racism is undoubtedly behind many of these discrepancies. More likely to be from lower-income households, people from BAME communities are at increased risk of job and financial insecurity during the pandemic than their white counterparts. These groups are “more likely to work in health and social care, and, particularly for men…more likely to work in shut-down sectors,” according to Cheryl Lloyd, education program head at the Nuffield Foundation. They are, consequently, at increased risk of developing mental health concerns during the pandemic, alongside their increased risk of dying from coronavirus.
Racial inequalities are not the only societal disparities revealed by the escalating mental health crisis in the U.K. There is also a significant gender gap, with women being just as likely as younger people to have suffered from depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders due to isolation brought about by lockdown. New mothers are particularly affected. Rates of post-natal depression have tripled during lockdown, while 72% of new mothers have reported feelings of anxiety.
Young people, BAME communities, and women are just a few of the social groups at increased risk of mental health difficulties during the pandemic. With such a vast array of potential factors and multipliers, dealing with the overall resultant mental health crisis must be a priority for the U.K. government as part of its coronavirus recovery plan. In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 50 organizations warned that a mental health renewal plan is essential, with an extra 500,000 people expected to require access to mental health services. 4 in 10 psychiatrists are already reporting an uptick in people needing urgent and emergency mental healthcare.
As part of the government’s mental health reform pledges, 24,000 extra mental health workers will be required by 2023-24. These are on top of 21,000 new posts proposed in the Mental Health Workforce Plan published in 2017. While the new government is set to spend an extra £20 million on additional places to train graduates as mental health social workers, there is strong evidence that filling those places will be harder than expected. According to leading graduate scheme provider Think Ahead, 90% of people think they are at risk of being attacked or injured if they work in the mental health sector.
“The system isn’t built to sufficient scale,” said Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation thinktank. “We just won’t meet demand.” The unprecedented increase in patients seeking mental health treatment, combined with a potential lack of supply to meet demand, risks exacerbating the current mental health crisis. A systemic overhaul of the NHS’s current mental healthcare framework is required. This includes campaigns to battle misconceptions about the (false) dangers of working in the sector, as well as long-term funding to ensure workers are not overwhelmed by the “tsunami” of demand for mental health treatment that, sadly, is sure to come.
Still more importantly, a targeted approach is required. Alongside tackling systemic racism and gender inequality, the U.K. government must ensure that communities are able to access appropriate mental health treatment at a local level. This includes ramping up the number of health centres in areas of relative deprivation, which are statistically more likely to be located in BAME communities. Additionally, strengthening mental health support networks in these areas’ schools would ensure access to support for children who are most likely to need it. The U.K. government must take these steps to fulfill its promise of a prosperous and inclusive post-lockdown future.