Anxiety, depression and loneliness are on the rise across the UK. People are reporting higher levels of stress and worry than ever before. And while mental health issues have long been a problem for many people, COVID-19 is making it worse.
Communications professional Mylo Kaye says: “Without mental health, there is no quality of life. It’s the single most important challenge facing this country. Many were already suffering before the pandemic and increasing numbers of people are reporting major difficulties as we collectively navigate coronavirus. Whether it’s isolation and loneliness in lockdown, anxiety about the virus itself or money worries, there is no doubt that there is a mental health crisis in this country.”
How is the pandemic affecting people’s mental health?
Mylo is training as a counsellor so he can make a difference and be part of the solution. He says: “Living in the midst of a global pandemic is a once in a lifetime trauma for many people. It’s certainly the biggest global health emergency to hit the UK since Spanish Influenza in 1918. The question now is how do we learn to live with it until a vaccine is developed, and how do we help the millions of people struggling mentally?”
During Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2020, Rethink Mental Illness examined how people with severe mental illness are coping during the pandemic. According to Alex Kennedy, head of Campaigns and Public Affairs at the charity, the pandemic has taken a severe toll on the already stretched to the limit mental health services in England: “For people who are severely affected by mental illness, even before the pandemic it was difficult to get the support they needed. Many people were simply told they were too ill to be supported by their GP but not ill enough to get specialist care.”
Just before the pandemic, the NHS Long Term plan began to address these long-standing issues. However, the strategy was suddenly halted by the emergence of COVID-19, leaving vulnerable people out on a limb. A survey carried out by the charity asked people living with mental illness to talk about how the pandemic has affected their access to services.
No access to mental health services
The survey shows that some have simply not been able to access the help they need, while others have had to adapt to online and virtual services. Face-to-face therapy appointments are now phone calls or online and access to in-patient wards is at a total standstill.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ service for people suffering from mental illness, and the reactions to these changes are mixed. However, the damning figure from the report is that 42% of respondents say their mental health is worsening during the pandemic, because they can’t access the help they need.
Mylo says: “Many people struggle with the remote support that is available right now. They may be phobic, isolated or concerned about lack of privacy. Others may find that virtual support works short-term but need in-person mental health help soon. This dramatic decline in mental health for those with existing illnesses shows just how vital our mental health services are. We now must adapt these services to work in this new normal.”
Different groups of people impacted differently by COVID-19
As well as those with pre-existing mental illness, evidence shows that different groups of people are reporting emerging mental health issues. Groups are also experiencing lockdown very differently.
“Balanced mental health is obviously also linked with physical health,” says Mylo. “Both of these in turn support positive community outcomes for society as a whole and for the individuals within it. Poor mental health is often linked with various socioeconomic circumstances, such as being out of work, concerns about paying bills and living in poverty, among others.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, statistics show that coronavirus is taking a heavier toll on those living in poverty or in more disadvantaged areas. There is also evidence to show that mental health disorders increase following times of disaster, including after previous viral epidemics.
“If we put all of this together, it’s clear that the response to COVID-19 is likely to have a significant and long-term detrimental impact on the UK’s mental health,” says Mylo. “Increasing stressors combined with a lack of access sto services and coping mechanisms collectively pose the biggest challenge we’ve faced as a nation since World War 2.”
How much do people say COVID-19 is affecting their mental health?
According to the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey by the Government, which covered 28-31 May 2020, more than two-thirds of adults are worried about COVID-19 and its effect on their life. Most common issues cited are concerns about the future (63%) and feeling anxious or stressed (56%).
A separate study on the first two months of lockdown by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that mental health has worsened by more than 8% on average compared with trajectories before the pandemic. And those groups (women and young adults) that already had worse mental health problems before COVID-19 are the hardest hit by the pandemic.
“It’s important to look at the drivers of these worsening mental health issues,” says Mylo. “The pandemic is causing multiple stressors for the general population, and driving mental illness levels higher.”
Key drivers contributing to declining mental health
- Isolation – Lockdown means isolation for many people. This is worse for those continuing to shield and for people who live alone. However, the percentage of people (5%, which is 2.6 million people) that say they often feel lonely during lockdown is actually not dissimilar to pre-pandemic figures. Groups within this category that have been affected more by loneliness include adults of working age who live alone, people who rent and people in poor health.
- Finances – The economic impact of the pandemic caused immediate mental health problems from the start. The Mental Health Foundation says that more than a third of those in full-time work were immediately scared of losing their job. And the toll on unemployed people is also severe and very widespread. Almost half are anxious about not being able to feed themselves or their families and a fifth have had thoughts of suicide.
- Housing – The ability to afford housing is a huge influence on people’s mental health. Renters are struggling during the pandemic more than those who own their home. The quality of housing and people’s surroundings have also been thrust into sharp relief due to enforced staying at home. For example, 12% of households in Great Britain have no outside space at all.
- Accessing help – Access to mental health services are critical to those with mental illness. Before the pandemic, services were already at breaking point and lockdown is making that worse. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, almost 50% say they have seen an increase in emergency cases since lockdown began. The mental health charity Mind found that almost 25% of people who trued to get help from mental health services during April failed completely.
“Good mental health is important for individuals but also at a national level so that as a country we can deal with increased stressors caused by crisis situations,” says Mylo. “The impact we’re seeing on mental health during the pandemic may well lead to problems with people’s physical health too. The Government and our communities must invest in mental health services as a matter of urgency. Failing to value our mental health services during this pandemic will cause many more problems in the future.”
Mylo Kaye is an experienced business leader who is passionate about helping people and businesses to make a difference through CSR and sustainability. He is in the process of becoming a qualified mental health counsellor.