Mental health and COVID-19: Preparing for rising levels of distress

A look at the predictions for the mental health needs of England’s population and ways to address them.

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Paula Lavis, policy manager at the Mental Health Network, and Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, look at the predictions for the mental health needs of England’s population and highlight forecasting tools and modelling work to support systems in working out the additional demand and costs for their populations.

There is good evidence that the pandemic is already increasing the number of people experiencing mental health difficulties in England, but the consensus is that the peak is still to come. Any increase in mental health problems is devastating on a personal level, but also puts significant demands on already stretched mental health and other support services. The challenge for commissioners and providers is how to accurately estimate any increase in demand as a result of COVID-19.

The Centre for Mental Health estimates that about ten million people may need new or additional mental health support because of the pandemic. This is a high figure, but the number of people experiencing mental health problems before the pandemic was already high. If we think about all the challenges people have faced, then it is not such a surprise that the pandemic is impacting on our mental health. People have experienced employment issues, missed out on education, experienced isolation, complex bereavement, have been traumatised as a result of being on a ventilator, as well as other social-economic concerns and the long-term impact of having the virus. It is not just about patients; health and care staff have experienced traumas and stresses, and many are feeling burnt out. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that over 200,000 healthcare workers will need treatment for their mental health.

There are a number of different sources all suggesting we will see a significant increase in the number of people seeking mental health care. The NHS Confederation surveyed its members and found that nearly 72 per cent of NHS leaders thought that they were expecting to see a significant increase in the number of people seeking support for mental health issues. Systems own modelling work is also suggesting an increase in demand of around 20 to 30 per cent.

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