COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis: We’ve Only Just Begun

Working with a mental health charity in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t make me an expert on mental health – but it does provide me with a platform to report what I’ve seen and to try and prepare for the COVID-19 mental health crisis to come.

The pandemic has been traumatic for everyone, especially those directly affected by death whether through family or because you are a health professional. But some traumas take months or years to surface, and some are re-emerging after months or years of treatment or suppression.

The media is full of comment and opinion (a lot of opinions) and if you dare to venture onto social media then one of our great triumphs (that of equalisation of voice) has sadly had a negative effect when it comes to determining expert from troll.

Let’s talk about curves.

Photo by Matheus Viana

There has been a lot of discussion about curves and there are millions of people who now know more about logarithmic scales then they ever did at school.

The apparent main aim of all government strategy is to ‘flatten the curve’. At a very basic level, this doesn’t mean that fewer people get infected, it means the same number of people get infected but over a longer period. This has the effect of giving our health systems more of a fighting chance to cope.

All very sensible. But we’re missing something.

When we talk about flattening the curve, our focus is naturally on the COVID-19 pandemic and infection, recovery, and death rates associated. But what if our thoughts extend beyond the virus half-life and onto the mental health pandemic curve that has only just begun its ascent.

We have a second COVID-19 mental health pandemic and its crisis is largely invisible so far.

COVID-19 mental health crisis

There are already anecdotal reports of spikes in anxiety attacks, persistent exhausting anxiety, suicidal ideation, and obsessive compulsive behaviours.

South Kent Mind is already operating at around 400% of their normal caseload with over 1200 calls in the first month of the lockdown.

Ipsos MORI were commissioned by the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) and mental health research charity, MQ: Transforming mental health (MQ) to carry out a survey among the public across Great Britain:

One in five (21%) are concerned about isolation, including not being able to go out in general (18%) and being in isolation for a long time (2%). Related to this, 13% are worried about social distancing, including the lack of social contact (5%) and loneliness (4%).

One in five (20%) are also worried about mental illnesses, including 11% who are concerned about anxiety and 7% who have concerns about depression.

Other concerns include, having negative feelings (13%), worries about practical aspects of life – for example, finances and employment (10%), and concerns about the COVID-19 virus (7%).

Ipsos MORI

And this is only the beginning.

As per the global health advice – it’s never too late to start, we need to both address the current crisis and yet still prepare for the chronic crisis to come.

The Government have stumped up a significant amount of money, but it’s not enough and it’s not going to last.

We not only need significant investment now in crisis service provision, we also need significant funding to aid rehabilitation for an entire nation over the next 12 months and more.

Alexandra Sifferlin writes about it in her article We Need a National Mental Health Response to Coronavirus:

Past research on the mental health consequences of disasters — including epidemics — suggests there may be a significant increase in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), domestic violence, and substance use problems.

After the 2003 SARS pandemic, researchers found that the experience of being in quarantine was associated with higher rates of depression and PTSD symptoms, and the symptoms were greater the longer a person was sheltered.

Other researchers found that high levels of stress and depression symptoms persisted at least a year after the pandemic among people who survived the disease and health providers who cared for people with SARS. (read more)

Alexandra Sifferlin

Let us take a moment to digest that statement: High levels. At least a year after. Survivors and health providers.

Photo by Casian Mitu

We need nationally coordinated mental health programmes like ‘Our Frontline‘ to support the mental health of the caregivers. We need community mental health projects that empower local communities to respond, recover, and rebuild, we need employer training programmes to teach companies how to employ and look after people with a mental health problem and why.

There’s no one size fits all. We need a combination of large charity projects and smaller agile social enterprises. We all need to pull together – out of a crisis is borne innovation and the VCSE sector will deliver in spades, provided they have the financial backing of the government and the population at large.

For the COVID-19 mental health crisis, we’ve only just begun.