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Mental health: the forgotten victim of Covid-19

At the start of January, The Guardian revealed that the number of people in England on antidepressants is at its highest figure on record, with over six million people being prescribed antidepressants in the three months prior to September. Simultaneously, referrals to IAPTs (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) have fallen by 28%. In the global crisis of the pandemic, when individuals lives have been turned upside-down, it is unsurprising that professionals are deeply concerned about an incoming mental health crisis as a consequence of the pandemic. The government have a duty to prepare for this by significantly improving the mental wellbeing provision available, which is currently unfit for purpose. 

Many of the issues and factors that have caused the spike in individuals needing medication and psychological assistance can be strongly linked with factors arising from the pandemic, such as job losses, financial struggles, social isolation, and disruption to normal routine. With the huge upheaval to people’s lives, individuals have lost essential coping mechanisms that normally were part of daily life, and have been left to flounder when the government have not stepped up. Now more than ever, earlier, effective intervention is required to deal with the traumatic impact of Covid-19 – yet the available support is insufficient. That the support available for people is limited to a prescription of antidepressants and long waits for therapy reflects an NHS where mental health provision has been forcibly cut to the bone

Now more than ever, earlier, effective intervention is required to deal with the traumatic impact of Covid-19 – yet the available support is insufficient

Antidepressants are being provided to help regulate moods, in an attempt to bridge the gap between what is available versus the support required. This can only function as a temporary measure – Covid has not only exacerbated pre-existing mental health conditions, it has also driven many to seek support in order to cope. Individuals who were previously upheld by the crutches of spending time with friends and family, engaging in hobbies and playing sports are now unable to do so, making it much harder to cope with the stress of the pandemic. The government’s empty platitudes and weekly claps are a poor substitute for the support required as people attempt to survive the total upheaval of daily life they have experienced.

For students, inadequacies in mental health provisions are old news, but during the pandemic too many students have been slipping through the cracks. In October 2020, the National Union of Students issued a Covid mental health warning. The lack of support offered to students self-isolating, and borderline inhumane treatment at times – for example, the attempts to fence Manchester students into their halls – has caused great concern. In October, The Tab reported that ‘at least one university student has died every week since the start of term’, which was before the November lockdown regulations were introduced. This is a damning reflection of the failures of universities to support their students through these troubling times. 

It is time for university wellbeing services around the country to step up and fulfil their duty of care by supporting their struggling students

Students are also being isolated from their support networks at a time when they require assistance the most and are unable to access help due to mental health support systems being overwhelmed. Universities cannot reasonably expect the same quality of work output as was required prior to the pandemic. The undue pressure placed on students to perform as if these were normal times is unfair and unreasonable, particularly when other levels of education are making provisions for their students. It is time for university wellbeing services around the country to step up and fulfil their duty of care by supporting their struggling students.

Poor mental health provision is not a new phenomenon – despite skyrocketing rates of mental health issues in the UK, the services have often suffered with ‘chronic underfunding’. As people have experienced greater levels of isolation than ever before, they have struggled with the lack of human interaction causing them to reach out for help, only to discover it is often inaccessible. While medication can assist with mood regulation, psychotherapy is often essential to address underlying issues. Yet more and more people are experiencing being sent off with a packet of tablets and the promise of a long wait before they can access meaningful assistance. Most cases of mental illness cannot be addressed with medication alone – therapy focuses on the root causes of an individual’s mental health problems, and full recovery is often impossible without it. 

Worryingly, there are fears that people are being put off seeking help until it reaches crisis point due to horror stories of endless waits and limited support. This barrier to gaining support could lead to an inundation of severe mental health cases that could overwhelm the stretched NHS mental health service. This is not inevitable, but it requires active intervention from the UK government. The government have a duty to their people – they must step up to prevent a national mental health crisis, and they must take action now.

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