Lockdown misery is turning a viral pandemic into a mental health crisis

Coronavirus may sink our already floundering psychiatric services

 

Coronavirus symptom tracking app downloaded by hundreds of thousands of times.mp4

The coronavirus outbreak has caused mass anxiety for the entire of the UK. Not being able to leave the house, meet friends, go to work or even visit your mum on Mother’s Day has taken its toll.

The government has made some acknowledgement of this, promising to keep mental wellbeing at the forefront of their plans.

However, the mass spike in those looking for mental health assistance concerns me.

I run the Hub of Hope, the UK’s most comprehensive signposting tool for mental health services. Last week, in the days between the prime minister’s first daily coronavirus briefing (15 March) and the day when school closures were announced (19 March), traffic to our app increased by 228 per cent.

Then, as rumours of an imminent enforced lockdown started circulating on Monday afternoon, we registered a 248 per cent jump in users. Our analytics graphs align almost perfectly with the breaking news bulletins.

While I’m very happy to have developed a tool that is easily accessible during this time, many of the vital services towards which we direct users are not. Understaffed, underfunded or unable to operate out of their usual premises, they are struggling to keep up with increasing demand.

All this happening in a nation where mental health provision was already at breaking point.

Last year showed a marked increase in suicides, with an 83 per cent increase for girls aged 10-24 since 2012. Approximately 110,000 school-aged children engaged in an act of self-harm in 2018. Almost three-quarters of the people who died by suicide were not known to mental health services, or had not been seen in over a year.

The safety nets were already fraying, but following this pandemic, we are walking head-on into a full-blown crisis.

The coronavirus bill itself, due to pass through the Lords this week, brings its own challenges for those in mental health inpatient care. Those who are deemed to be seriously unwell will now face being sectioned on the approval of one doctor, rather than the usual two. People who wish to appeal their initial detention will have to wait longer than the usual three months, as this has now been deferred until after the crisis has ended. The aim of these measures is to free up medical staff and police, who predict high staff shortages and increased pressure on services. However, we could come out of this crisis with wrongfully detained people languishing on secure wards without a timely appeal, and with waiting lists for psychological therapies, GP appointments and crisis services exploding.

Fear, isolation and a lack of support are chipping away at the huge proportion of our population right now. Without careful consideration of the impact that sweeping emergency legislation will have on the most vulnerable, we are creating a ticking time bomb in mental health services, one that may go off soon after this pandemic has passed.

Jake Mills is CEO of Chasing the Stigma and founder of the Hub of Hope.

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