Mental health services brace for surge in demand as coronavirus limits ability to treat patients

Thousands of people in need of mental health support could struggle to receive treatment

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 12 August 2020 12:22
Thousands of people will need mental health support after the coronavirus crisis
Thousands of people will need mental health support after the coronavirus crisis

Mental health services are predicting a surge in cases the coronavirus pandemic but leaders have warned they will struggle to meet the demand.

Some NHS mental health trusts are forecasting a rise of 20 per cent in patients seeking help, but because of the need to protect patients and staff from Covid-19 services are having to reduce how many patients they can treat by between 10 and 30 per cent.

The NHS Confederation, which represents over 500 health and care organisations, said there were limits to what care could be provided and warned there was a risk some patients may not get the treatment they need and could see their conditions deteriorate.

While the peak of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital came earlier this year, a new report from the NHS Confederation warns that the peak in demand for mental health care is "yet to come".

It said mental health bodies need "intensive support and investment" to prepare for it.

The report says many providers are already seeing higher numbers of patients than before the pandemic.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there are patients with more significant needs; a higher proportion of patients are accessing services for the first time; and increased numbers of patients detained under the Mental Health Act.

And some mental health bodies are predicting a 20 per cent rise in demand.

The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that an additional 500,000 people will require support for their mental health in the next two years.

But this comes as many have been forced to reduce the number of patients they can treat because of infection control procedures and social distancing measures.

Three "drivers of additional demand" include: demand from people who would have used the service regardless of the pandemic, people whose mental health will have deteriorated during the pandemic, and new demand from people needing support due to the wider impacts of the pandemic, such as self-isolation and increases in substance abuse and domestic violence.

As well as additional support for service providers, the NHS Confederation has called for a recruitment campaign encouraging people into mental health roles.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation's Mental Health Network, said: "Although being away from the political spotlight, mental health services across the country have faced unprecedented challenges due to coronavirus which they have responded to remarkably by innovating and moving to different ways of working to protect their patients and staff.

"But we must not be fooled into thinking that the worst is behind us. There is a rising tide in demand for NHS-funded mental health care associated with the pandemic, which we expect to remain high for some time and will be felt long after the physical health crisis across acute and community care subsides.

"Providers are facing this with reduced capacity across their services, with significant funding constraints, and with a workforce that is close to burnout due to vacancy levels and the pressures placed upon them.

"If these issues are not addressed, it could overwhelm services and lead to people having to wait longer for mental health support and their conditions deteriorating.

"Above all else, the Chancellor must stay true to his promise and give the NHS whatever it needs, and for mental health care services that means recognising that the crisis is far from over."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: "We recognise the impact this pandemic has had on people's mental health and we will continue to gather evidence and assess the potential longer-term mental health impacts.

"We have provided £9.2m in funding to national and local mental health charities to support adults and children affected by the pandemic, and we will continue to work with the NHS, Public Health England and others to support mental health and wellbeing at this time.

"Mental health services will expand further and faster thanks to a minimum £2.3bn of extra investment a year by 2023/24 as part of the NHS long-term plan."

Dr Kate Lovett, dean at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "We are already starting to see the significant impact of Covid-19 on mental health with people presenting in crisis.

"Mental health services were already seriously stretched before the pandemic and there is a risk of people slipping through the cracks unless we see urgent and increased investment.

"The government's announcement of £250 million to start to reduce mental health dormitory provision is a step in the right direction, but we need to make further strides quickly, backed up by significant investment in mental health facilities in the forthcoming Spending Review, so everyone can safely access the treatment they need."

Additional reporting by agencies

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