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5 May 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:38am

Coronavirus is creating a huge “mental health emergency”

Half of the general population are now highly anxious, while care home residents “lose the will to live” and mental health patients are discharged.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Almost half of British adults have felt a high level of anxiety during the coronavirus lockdown so far, according to the latest wellbeing survey by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Between 20 March and 30 March, 49.6 per cent of people rated themselves higher than six out of ten on an anxiety scale – a sharp increase on the level at the end of 2019, which was 21 per cent. The number of people suffering from high levels of anxiety has more than doubled, to over 25 million people aged 16 and over.

In the same period, the proportion of people reporting low levels of happiness was at 20.7 per cent, up from 8.4 per cent at the end of last year. Just as the pandemic is causing people to avoid being admitted to hospital for heart disease, strokes and cancer, another silent but growing side effect of coronavirus is the effect of lockdown on the UK’s mental health.

One of the principal causes of this anxiety is the pandemic’s far-reaching effect on the economy. Anxiety is 33 per cent higher, on average, among those who think they won’t be able to save money in the next year, and 16 per cent higher among those who have experienced a reduction in household finances.

Money woes are only part of the picture, however. The ONS found that very large numbers of people were anxious about the pandemic’s effect on their general health (estimated to affect 1.9 million people) and their education (3.8 million people).

The most widespread concern — estimated to affect 8.5 million people in the UK — was the direct effect of the boredom and loneliness of lockdown. A record 8 million people live alone in the UK, and since 23 March they have been kept from social contact by the necessary lockdown measures. The most vulnerable must remain self-isolated, with 1.5 million instructed by the government to shield themselves.

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We have entered an age of mass loneliness, a condition that is thought to be as bad for a person’s health as smoking and which disproportionately affects the elderly.

“I’m watching my residents just lose the will to live,” says a care home manager in Wiltshire, who prefers to remain anonymous. “I wonder how many people will die from the effects of Covid-19, without having Covid-19.”

“They are absolutely bored rigid because they’re stuck in their rooms,” she says. “However much we try to give them one-to-one, providing extra laptops and tablets for Skyping and various things, it’s a very long day when they can’t even get together for lunch.” Some patients, she says, “can’t be bothered to eat, drink, because they’re elderly and they’re not stimulated”.

There has also been a drastic fall in children’s referrals to mental health services, according to a report by the Health Service Journal, which found a 50 per cent reduction in Birmingham. And among the general public, there appears to have been a 30-40 per cent drop in referrals to mental health services, according to Claire Murdoch, the national mental health director for NHS England who appeared before the health select committee last Friday (1 May).

On top of this, social workers are no longer carrying out home visits, and just one in 20 children deemed vulnerable are turning up to school, which is often the only safe place for those at risk.

The mental health charity Mind told me there was evidence from calls to its legal line, and information from mental health services themselves, that people were being discharged from both inpatient and outpatient services.

“We are concerned that people discharged from hospital, who are particularly vulnerable, won’t be getting the right support from community teams. ​The impact of this can’t be underestimated – the first week after discharge is when people are at the highest risk of suicide,” warns Geoff Heyes, head of health policy at Mind.

“We are worried about the knock-on impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the availability and quality of services to support people experiencing mental health problems,” he says.

The roles of mental health staff who work in inpatient wards has “changed”, as they were moved to work in physical health to help with the pressures on the health service. Existing mental health provision is also affected by the need for social distancing between staff and patients.

“With the NHS under so much pressure, we’re hearing that many people with mental health problems are struggling to access services, or their GP and pharmacy, for treatment and support,” Heyes adds.

He predicts a “a huge toll over the coming months” on the nation’s mental health. The pandemic, he says, must be treated “as both a public health and mental health emergency”.

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