COVID-19 has challenged us, causing isolation, grief, extreme financial hardship, and adverse psychological impacts. Scientists now question whether this international emergency is also leading to a public mental health crisis (The Lancet Public Health). This report highlights the current UK situation and stresses the need for a rapid and effective response.
“Mental health is defined as “emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing”, which affects “how we think, feel, act, handle stress and make choices””
Mental health is defined as “emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing”, which affects “how we think, feel, act, handle stress and make choices” (MentalHealth.Gov). A recent UK survey showed that national mental health deteriorated by April 2020, compared to pre-pandemic trends, with the most significant deterioration in the 18-24 age group (Pierce et al. 2020). Moreover, a UK study of 4000 people showed that in early April, 24% of adults reported feeling lonely (Mental Health Foundation). By May, 53% of people reported feeling anxious, and 18% of adults reported feeling hopeless (Mental Health Foundation).
Studies from previous outbreaks, like the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), show similar trends. Authors have described SARS as a mental health catastrophe, with persistent psychological symptoms occurring in 24-65% of survivors (Maunder 2009). Moreover, patients had rates of psychiatric disorders, like depression and anxiety, and suicide compared to controls (Tzeng et al., 2020). Similarly, a forecast, conducted in October 2020, suggested that up to 10 million people in the UK will need new or additional mental health support as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Centre for Mental Health).
“Up to 10 million people in the UK will need new or additional mental health support as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic”
Unfortunately, this pandemic is widening inequalities in mental health, with certain groups being at higher risk of mental illness than others. Children and young adults have the greatest risk of mental illness, likely due to school closures and high youth unemployment (The Lancet Public Health). The elderly are also severely affected, with many experiencing loneliness, isolation, and fear (The Lancet Public Health). Likewise, those from low-income backgrounds or Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic (Smith et al., 2020; Centre for Mental Health). Specifically, people with lower socioeconomic position had a 37% increase in the relative risk of depression and members of BAME communities had a 17% increase (Iob et al., 2020). Lastly, health workers, who are at the forefront of the battle with COVID-19, have high rates of psychological distress and burnout, highlighting the need for rapid mental health support to sustain the humanitarian response (Choudhury et al., 2020). Mental health charities have voiced their concern about these widening inequalities in mental health, encouraging strategies to modernise mental health services, through a focus on race equality and marginalised communities (Rimmer, 2020).
“Mental health charities have voiced their concern about these widening inequalities in mental health, encouraging strategies to modernise mental health services, through a focus on race equality and marginalised communities”
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many lives, causing grave economic, social, and psychological consequences. Thus, rapid action is needed to address this increased demand for mental health services to mitigate a potential crisis.
Recommendations for the future:
- Increased digital health resources to address accessibility challenges (associated with social distancing), unequal access, and increase capacity.
- Targeted and tailored support for high risk groups (like key workers, people from low-economic background, BAME communities, people living alone, the elderly, and young people) to ensure that their needs are addressed.
12 January 2021
A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team.