Could COVID-19 change our mental health services for the better?
9 July 2021
With the increase in mental health problems brought on by the pandemic, we now have the opportunity to create lasting change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has frequently been referred to as a mental health crisis. Since the pandemic began, millions of people around the world have experienced difficulties with their mental health or have seen a loved one struggle. The pandemic has exacerbated mental health-related symptoms and disproportionately affected some groups of people, shining a light on the increasing need for action in the face of this significant health burden. We are, however, already starting to see positive initiatives around mental health which have arisen out of the crisis caused by COVID-19.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected our mental health and mental health services?
To give some background, we must first acknowledge the devastating impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health. As COVID-19 spread throughout the world and countries began locking down in early 2020, with it came huge uncertainty and stress about the future. In the UK, for example, around one in five (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, an increase compared with November 2020 (19%) and double the levels reported before the pandemic (10%). Researchers in the US found that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased during the pandemic from around 36% to 42%. On a global scale, levels of depression and anxiety grew between three to four times during the first half of 2020, compared with previous years.
Another worrying trend is the feeling of languishing, a sense of stagnation and emptiness that is predicted to be a dominant emotion in 2021.
This decline in mental health has only been exacerbated by the fact that, as demand for mental health services has been increasing, services have been debilitated by COVID-19. According to a WHO survey of 130 countries, the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in almost all of them.
According to a WHO survey of 130 countries, the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in almost all of them.
COVID-19 could widen mental health inequalities
While many of us have felt the impact of COVID-19, certain groups have been disproportionately affected. Several studies have found that women, young adults, people living with disabilities or previous mental health conditions and people in lower socioeconomic groups have been hit the hardest, with many vulnerable groups less able to access vital mental health services. In the US, two thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds reported an anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic; the same study found that people of colour and unpaid carers were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The emerging evidence exposes the extent to which existing inequalities in mental health are at risk of widening as a result of the pandemic.
What are the innovative solutions to the mental health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
With such a challenge facing us, it is encouraging to see that countries around the world have begun to introduce initiatives to support people’s mental health. For example, the huge changes to the way we work – whether it’s working from home, returning to a busy office, or job uncertainty – are starting to be addressed by companies introducing hybrid models to allow more flexibility for employees. Allowing flexibility in this way moving forward may benefit those with mental health conditions who do not work well under traditional working hours and prefer their own routine, and can also be valuable for employees with children or caring arrangements who may be having difficulties balancing this with their work.
With such a challenge facing us, it is encouraging to see that countries around the world have begun to introduce initiatives to support people’s mental health.
Much like virtual GP appointments, digital innovations in psychiatry are increasing access to services when face-to-face appointments are harder to obtain. Such virtual therapy sessions may widen access to services compared with before the pandemic.
Another promising development is the growing popularity of social prescribing. This is a model that enables healthcare professionals, such as GPs and nurses, to refer people to non-clinical services for their health and wellbeing. This includes connecting with a link worker and community activities, for instance participating in gardening or social clubs. Social prescribing may allow people struggling with their mental health to access local services that they may not otherwise have found. The Welsh government sees social prescribing as a priority post-pandemic.
Maintaining our focus on mental health post-pandemic
Mental health needs to remain a priority in post-pandemic world. Although there is far to go, by continuing to implement innovative solutions to aid our mental health, whether it’s in our healthcare services or our lifestyle, we can maintain a focus on mental health that perhaps was not there before.