The worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not limited to physical afflictions.
According to A&E reports, over 20% of mental health treatments have been postponed or cancelled because of the COVID-19 strain on health systems.
In parts of Northern Ireland, over 8,000 patients had to wait for more than two hours to see mental health practitioners.
In other parts of the UK, around 25% of patients waiting for mental health treatment have had to wait for three months before scheduling an assessment. The Royal College of Psychiatrists warn that the increase of mental health problems could result in even longer waits in the next few months. The Dean of the college, Dr. Kate Lovett, has called this phenomenon a ‘disgrace’ and an injustice for those waiting for life-saving treatments:
‘It’s disgraceful that people are waiting years for potentially lifesaving mental health treatment. There would be a public outcry if people were waiting so long for cancer treatment, but for some reason waits for mental health treatment are deemed acceptable’
Who has been Most Affected by the Mental Health Crisis?
The pandemic’s toll on mental health, from front line workers to young children, have been felt by all.
The psychological burden on healthcare workers was to be expected. Like other epidemics, including SARS, nurses and doctors reported worsened symptoms due to the additional pressure on health systems. Depression, burnout and anxiety were some of the most issues that arose from past crises; all of which are now felt by those tackling the pandemic.
As the Independent’s Ankur Khajuria states, the pre-existing rates of psychiatric stress among medical staff and the current strain on the NHS has whipped up the ‘perfect storm’
‘Combine this with high pre-existing rates of psychiatric, stress-related illnesses experienced by UK doctors, and suicide rates higher than many occupations, and we have the perfect storm. There were early warning calls, with published data on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health of healthcare workers from China and Singapore. We were simply ill-prepared’
Draper & Dash’s Orlando Agrippa, CEO of the leading health data analytics firm, could not agree more. The firm’s analysis infers that the ‘psychological pain’ caused by the ‘7-day’ working week of frontline workers, intermittent lockdowns and uncertainty regarding the future, may not be so quickly abated.
‘Many frontline staff have themselves been significantly affected as a result of the 7-day working weeks brought about by the pandemic, with little respite in sight. In a recent private survey, we saw teams providing the highest levels of occupational health referrals in January 2021 in comparison to comparable periods over the past 5 years – and with current trends, this looks set only to rise over the coming years’
The Youth Mental Health Crisis
Similarly, families and head teachers have warned that the mental health plague on the UK’s youth will only get worse.
The number of children and teenagers needing mental health support has risen to an alarming rate. Over 500,000 young people have contacted the NHS for mental health resources and treatments, on top of the one in six already on record.
In spite of the resilience the UK’s youth have shown throughout the pandemic, the crisis has raised pressures students typically endure. An educator has said:
‘These are children struggling with raised pressures on family life, many in overcrowded homes who can’t cope with the energy in the house and who are unable to regulate their emotions […] Sadly we have seen a significant increase in students with mental health problems. In a normal year, we make 15 referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, but we’ve already referred 25 students and we’re not even half way through the second term’
Education leaders have urged the government to outline a targeted strategy to help the UK’s vulnerable youth. They have accused Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, of lacklustre and faulty leadership. His ‘hostile attitude to educators’ has supposedly ‘eroded trust’ among educators and school boards alike. One head teacher urged the government to consider the long-term mental health effects of the coronavirus:
‘Covid will have a long tail and we need to plan because we will be feeling the effects of it on mental health well into 2022’
How do we Protect our Youth and Health Workers?
Orlando believes that mental health systems and the government need to take stock of their learnings from the first lockdowns. By understanding the data surrounding mental health, educators, families and public systems can anticipate future challenges – and tackle them, fully prepared:
‘Our experiences during the pandemic to date have stressed the importance of response and recovery planning that blends advanced data science tools alongside the first-hand and team-level knowledge of those on the ground, day-to-day. We have seen time and time again that those who continue to deliver high quality care and a level of both workforce and system capacity that sees patients able to receive the support they need throughout the pandemic are those that have utilised the digital and data-driven technology available to them’
Members from the Department of Health have since pledged additional efforts in combatting the mental health crisis.
‘We are committed to increasing the mental health force. Mental health services will expand further and faster thanks to a minimum £2.3 Billion of extra investment by 2023/2024 as part of the NHS long term plan’
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