UK’s ‘Second Pandemic’ 

There’s an urgent need to tackle the rise in mental health issues since Covid hit

NHS leaders are urging the government to address a massive rise in depression, anxiety, psychosis and eating disorders since Covid hit.

In England, NHS leaders and doctors have warned that millions of patients face incredibly long waits for mental health care unless the government urgently draws up a recovery plan to tackle this “second pandemic” of depression, anxiety, psychosis and eating disorders.

The Covid crisis has triggered a dramatic rise in people experiencing mental health problems, with 1.6 million wait-listed for specialised treatment. According to the NHS Confederation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, another 8 million cannot be wait-listed but would benefit from support.

In some parts of the country, mental health services are so overwhelmed that they refer back to the GPs even patients at risk of suicide, self-harm and starvation that referred them in the first place, prompting fears that some patients will likely die as a consequence.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, who has acknowledged that national levels of depression have nearly doubled since the pandemic, is facing pressure to speedily develop a “comprehensive plan” to respond to the spiralling demand for mental health care in the UK.

“We are moving towards a new phase of needing to ‘live with’ coronavirus, but for a worrying number of people, the virus is leaving a growing legacy of poor mental health that services are not equipped to deal with adequately at present,” said Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

Urgent steps needed

“With projections indicating that 10 million people in England, of which 1.5 million are children and teenagers, will need new or additional services for their mental health over the next three to five years, it is no wonder that health leaders have dubbed this the ”the second pandemic”. A national crisis of this scale deserves targeted and sustained attention from the government in the same way we have seen with the elective care backlog.”

While the NHS Confederation is asking for an expansion of NHS services for mental healthcare and a major recruitment drive as part of a recovery plan. Currently, one in 10 consultant psychiatrist posts is not filled.

Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We urgently need a fully-funded mental health recovery plan, backed by a long-term workforce plan, to ensure everyone with a mental illness can get the help they need when they need it. Millions of children, young people and adults are seeking help from mental health services that are overstretched and under-resourced. The situation is critical. The government cannot afford to neglect mental health recovery any longer.”

Experts also believe that a vital element of a recovery plan should focus on providing an early response for children and young people with mental health problems. There has been a 72% increase in teenagers and children referred for urgent aid for eating disorders in one year and a 52% rise in emergency referrals for under-18s to crisis treatment since the onset of the pandemic.

“The impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health cannot be overstated,” said Olly Parker, the head of external affairs at the charity YoungMinds.

Dr David Turner, a family doctor in Hertfordshire, said he was so concerned that he had decided to express publicly for the first time in his 25-year career. “I and many other GPs feel the issue has become critical, and it is only a matter of time before a child dies,” he told a newspaper. 

Turner added that access to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) was “never great pre-Covid” but is now “appalling”. He added that the double whammy of a surge in demand and underinvestment in CAMHS was risky for the patients.

Turner said one particularly alarming new trend was CAMHS “bouncing back” patients with severe mental health disorders to GPs who had referred them for specialist care. GPs are expected to carry out weekly weight checks and blood tests and monitor vital organs of patients with anorexia nervosa, some of whom are at risk of self-harm, suicide or starvation. “We have no specific training in this specialised area,” he said.

Dr Phil Moore, a GP and chair of the NHS Confederation’s mental health, learning disability and autism system group, said he was concerned that the mounting backlog of care could see patients “deteriorating to the point of crisis”. “No clinician wants to see this happen,” he added. “This was a problem before Covid, but things are a lot worse now.”

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