With almost half of the world’s population under social distancing measures, people are being forced to adapt to a situation that is almost inevitably conducive to worsening mental health. Professor Rory O’Connor, in a paper published in Lancet Psychiatry, has called for greater monitoring of how the pandemic is impacting mental health. O’Conner has pointed to: “increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn,” as serious, potential threats to mental well-being.
For those with pre-existing mental health conditions, the present situation is likely to only make things worse. A regular routine and the ability to socialise often allows for respite from the symptoms of mental illness and can make day-to-day life easier. Meaning that, for many, the lockdown is an almost nightmarish situation to navigate. While data on mental health incidents has yet be gathered, Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths of the Police Superintendents’ Association has said that: “there are very early indications of an increase in suicide attempts and suicides.”
Mental health services in the UK were already under strain before the start of the pandemic. A report by the BBC in 2019 revealed that half of the patients treated by the NHS’ adult counselling service have to wait over 28 days for their second appointment after their initial consultation. Of those who have to wait for more than 28 days, a sixth have to wait over 90 days. For those in a state of crisis, that can be enough time to make matters significantly worse.
Following the pandemic, we are likely to see an increased need for essential mental health services. After SARS, there was a 30% increase in the suicide rate of over 65s. The US-based Disaster Distress Helpline has already seen an 891% increase in use since the start of the crisis. Paired with the economic recession that the pandemic has led to, it is going to be more difficult than ever to find the necessary funding needed by the NHS to restore mental health services.
While it is inevitable that the crisis will lead to a rise in the prevalence of mental health difficulties, there is also a possibility for innovation in the mental health sector, and an increased awareness of mental health in the public eye. Despite the uncertainty of future funding for mental health services, the government’s decision to devote an additional £5 million to mental health charities during the crisis promises that we may start to see a growing prioritisation of these issues.
Counselling, both privately and through the NHS, is finding its way online. For many, accessing therapy is a luxury, and the adaptation of these services to a remote format may level the playing field for accessing mental health services, especially for those with dependents who may struggle to fit counselling in, especially if it’s not accessible locally. While websites such as Better Help have been offering (paid) online counselling for a few years, services like this still have not really reached the mainstream. Perhaps there is something to be said for the power of in-person interaction. It is certainly a lot harder to distance yourself when you are in a room with someone, but taking this stance cuts many people off from accessing invaluable help.
Most significantly, the pandemic has allowed greater empathy between us in terms of mental health issues. Few people I know would describe the situation as impacting them positively, and this shared experience has opened up a greater honesty both publicly, and in individual relationships. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself being truly open with my friends about the things that I’m dealing with on a day to day basis, and it feels like the discourse around this kind of struggle has become more accepting, and easier to navigate.
While the future is not clear, part of me is optimistic that this is a real opportunity for things to get better. A time of crisis forces us to confront that which we would rather avoid, and for better or for worse, forces what was once hidden out into the light. While we all want to return to ‘normal’ life, I hope that this widening honesty around mental health is not something that changes. It seems like something that has been missing for a while.