Much has already been written about how the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the global mental health crisis. It's hardly a surprise – many of us have spent the last three months shuffling from our garden-less homes to the local Tesco Metro and back again. Some will have lost their jobs. Others will have lost friends or family members. Life has become tinged with uncertainty, our routines eradicated and relationships altered. While there have been silver linings for some, pandemics aren't generally known for their mental health benefits.
This isn't just anecdotal. Mind stats released today found that 65 percent of adults over 25 and 75 percent of young people aged 13-24 with an existing mental health problem have reported worse mental health issues during the pandemic. More than one in five adults with no previous experience of poor mental health now say that their mental health is poor or very poor. Those in social housing seemed to have been hit particularly hard, with over half saying that their mental health is now poor or very poor and 67 percent saying that their mental health had recently worsened.
But while a virus might eventually pass with a vaccine, mental health outcomes aren't so clear cut. It's not as if, once lockdown is over, everyone's emotional wellbeing will return to “neutral” levels, whatever that means. As Dr Dominique Thompson, a GP and mental health expert, points out, the mental health repercussions of a pandemic are likely to far outlive the virus itself. “The difficulty is that it will probably never be exactly like it was before,” she says. “In the UK in particular, it will have meant that a whole generation of people are bereaved prematurely, at all sorts of different ages.”
“Then you've got the impact on the essential workers,” she continues. “Some of those will have potentially been through some traumatic roles. For others there has been separation – the carers who moved into retirement homes, the doctors and nurses who lived in the car parks. These are extraordinary things that humans do to help other humans. But they have an impact. We don't yet know how that will play out. Yes, there is potential for longer term trauma, for delayed grief reactions, for delayed exhaustion.” In other words: the reasons for worsening mental health during the pandemic are multifaceted and extensive, but also unlikely to disappear overnight.
For those who do seek help, the existing UK mental health services often aren't robust enough to accommodate, which can have dire consequences. “One in four people we spoke to for our survey said that during the pandemic they weren't able to access mental health services,” explains Megan Pennell, Parliamentary and Campaigns Manager at Mind. “Because of the crisis, a lot of local services were forced to close or reduce their capacity or change the way that they operate. They can't meet up in person and that might sometimes be the only contact you have with other people. Looking forward, we know that a lot of those organisations are facing problems in terms of funding, with the marathon being cancelled and with charity shops closing.”
Having it all written down like this can make everything look hopeless. Mental health services were underfunded and under strain to begin with (“We were starting from a losing position,” says Thompson) and that was before the pandemic. But the situation isn't hopeless, it's just urgent. Following the release of mental health stats, Mind are now urging the UK government to commit to a post-coronavirus recovery roadmap which treats mental health with the same gravity as physical health. “We, and our colleagues in the voluntary sector, are willing and able to work with colleagues across Westminster to make this happen,” says Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, in a press release.
Ultimately, as with before the pandemic, mental health services need proper funding and real, tangible reform. Mind have outlined five areas in which the UK government needs to focus their attention and commit funding to: Investing in community services, protecting those most at risk and addressing inequalities faced by people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities, reforming the Mental Health Act (“during the crisis, what we saw was that a lot of the people who had been retained were in settings that weren't going to help them get well,” explains Pennell), providing a more adequate and flexible financial safety net for those unable to work due to mental health, and better supporting children and young people.
“A lot of this isn't new,” says Pennell. “It's things that we knew were happening anyway and we've been calling on the government to do [something about it] for a long time. The crisis has just made that even more urgent and highlighted those gaps that have been there and are fundamental for helping people stay well. There might be a second wave that comes at some point, so we need to learn the lessons now to ensure that we're prepared to protect people's mental health in the long term.”
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.