Turning the tide: how can we meet the rising need for mental health support?

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1 October 2020

By Sarah Hughes

Over the last six months, Centre for Mental Health has been reviewing evidence about the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health. From research into previous epidemics and economic shocks to recently published evidence from studies and surveys relating to Covid-19, we have built up a picture of just how big a threat to the public’s mental health the pandemic presents.

In our final forecast, our economist Nick O’Shea has drawn on the evidence we have amassed so far and worked with colleagues from the NHS across England to estimate as far as we can how far this is likely to increase need for mental health support.

Even when using a conservative approach to the available evidence, the results of this exercise are stark. They point to the conclusion that up to 10 million people in England, 1.5 million of them children and young people, will need mental health support as a consequence of the pandemic and its after-effects.

It is all the more important the Government and the NHS are prepared for the rising level of need and ready to meet it – whenever possible before people reach the point of crisis.

This is a huge increase in the level of need for mental health support. As we predicted in our earlier forecasts, it is likely to be more of a rising tide than the often-cited ‘tsunami’ of demand for mental health care. Sadly, people often live with psychological distress for months and years before seeking help. But that makes it all the more important the Government and the NHS are prepared for the rising level of need and ready to meet it – whenever possible before people reach the point of crisis.

So we need a plan. We need a plan that brings together national and local bodies to support the nation’s mental health at this crucial time. We need a plan that is centred on reducing inequalities and leaves no one behind. And we need a plan that brings together resources and effort from across communities and services.

We need a plan that is centred on reducing inequalities and leaves no one behind.

At a local level, some key elements of that plan might include:

Coming together locally to understand what support will be needed and what resources they have (collectively) to help. Pooled knowledge, effort and intelligence will be important to make scarce resources go as far as they can. That means working in partnership not just between public services but with community organisations, faith groups, businesses and charities that will be part of the solution.

Offering help wherever people need it: there must be ‘no wrong doors’. That means locating mental health support in primary care (as our recent work with The King’s Fund and with the British Psychological Society has shown), in schools, colleges and universities, and in social care.

Using the best, evidence-based treatments: especially for people experiencing trauma symptoms and complicated grief as a direct result of the virus and the lockdown. New challenges may require new approaches, and quickly responding to growing areas of need.

Reaching out and working alongside communities that have experienced the worst of Covid-19. Working proactively, arm-in-arm with communities to understand emerging needs and create culturally appropriate support will be essential.

Local efforts to meet mental health needs will of course require national support, too. While the NHS has a clear financial settlement for the next few years, including vital extra resources for mental health services, public health, social care and health education and training are still waiting for spending plans. These are needed urgently to make sure mental health support can grow to meet people’s needs and avoid deepening the profound inequalities we have seen. We need effective national leadership to help us all through the trauma of the pandemic, to enable people to maintain their livelihoods and to keep us as safe as possible throughout the months to come.

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