Mental health: the other pandemic

The Minister for Mental Health defends the government's record on mental health service provision.

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Living under social restrictions has been challenging for many of us. While the British public has shown great resilience during these difficult and unsettling times, some groups, including young people and those living with a mental illness, have been impacted more than others. As restrictions are easing and we move back to some normality, I want to reflect on the impact the past year has had on people’s well-being, and the support in place for them. 

For some, the past year has offered the opportunity to spend more time with family and enjoy a slower pace of life. However, I am acutely aware this is not the case for everyone, and many people have, understandably, felt low, anxious, lonely or had a pre-existing condition exacerbated. 

There are some basic steps we can all take to improve our mental well-being, such as trying to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. There is also a wealth of free resources and advice available through Every Mind Matters, to equip adults, children, young people and their carers to deal with stress and anxiety. During these challenging times this is a great place to start when seeking advice.

There is no doubt that charities have also played a huge role in delivering support in the community over the past year, and to help them deliver these essential services the government has given £10.2m to over 130 mental health charities. This includes those supporting the well-being of children and young people such as Young Minds and Place 2 Be, enabling the remote delivery of support services such as counselling. 

For those who feel they need more support, I urge you to reach out. Mental health services have remained open throughout the pandemic, with care often being delivered remotely via telephone or online, alongside face-to-face care, which has been hugely welcomed. 

[Read more: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

To access services you can speak to your GP, or self-refer for NHS talking therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling, which can help with common mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression.

And for those who have experienced a mental health crisis, I am proud to say all mental health trusts in England have established 24/7 urgent mental health helplines for people of all ages so anyone can access immediate support and advice. We have been able to deliver on this commitment two years ahead of schedule, and not only does this offer a more accessible form of help and support for people in crisis, it has supported the NHS at the peak of the pandemic by reducing ambulance call-outs. 

Children and young people in particular have faced specific challenges over the past year. Their well-being has been disproportionately affected, and according to NHS data one in six children aged from five to 16 now have a probable mental disorder. This is an increase from one in nine in 2017. Therefore it is vital we make sure the right support is in place, both now and in the future. 

With schools having re-opened, it’s possible for children to regain some normality. But this in itself may bring challenges. To support their return to the classroom, we have invested £8m in a Wellbeing for Education Return programme. This funding has helped upskill education staff so they can better respond to children’s emotional needs as a result of the pandemic, and provide schools and colleges across England with the knowledge and resources to support young people, teachers and parents. Earlier this year, Public Health England launched a new online Psychological First Aid training course for people who care for or work with children and young people affected by Covid-19, or other individual crises, so that they can be provided with practical and emotional support. We have also appointed a Youth Mental Health Ambassador to help shape children’s mental health education and support in schools. Getting the right support early on is crucial to preventing problems occurring or worsening.

[Read more: How we misunderstand depression]

As we look ahead and follow the roadmap to cautiously ease restrictions across England, we will continue to support people’s well-being. We have published a Mental Health Recovery Action Plan to respond to the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health, specifically targeting vulnerable groups including young people. This is backed by £500m of funding, which will accelerate the expansion of mental health services. This includes dedicated funding to level up well-being across the country through initiatives to promote positive mental health in the most deprived areas in England. 

We are supporting the expansion of community mental health services with £79m, which will enable 22,500 more young people to access support, and speed up and expand the provision of mental health support teams in schools, meaning nearly three million children in England will access school or college-based support by April 2023. This funding will also ensure 2,000 more children and young people can access eating disorder services. And for young adults, £13m will provide tailored mental health services, bridging the gap between children’s and adult services to specifically support those aged 18-25, including university students. 

As well as ensuring immediate support is available, we’ve looked to transform mental health services in the long term. Our NHS Long Term Plan ensures we will invest £2.3bn per year into mental health services by 2023/24, the largest increase in mental health funding in NHS history. This will mean an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support, per year.

I take the mental well-being of everyone very seriously, and while I know there is still much to do, this government is resolute in its determination to expand and transform mental health services to ensure everyone has the support they need for good mental well-being. The message remains clear: there is support out there, whoever you are and whatever your situation. If you need help, I urge you to reach out.

To read the latest Spotlight report on mental health click here.

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