The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the nation’s mental health. New research from Mind shows that two out of three adults over 25 (65%) have seen their mental health worsen. Three quarters (75%) of young people aged 13 to 45 have reported an increase in mental health concerns.
Even people with no previous history of mental illness have been affected, with one in five adults (20%) saying that their mental health is now poor or very poor. Meanwhile, eight out of ten (80%) people living with a serious mental illness described their mental health as having worsened as a result of Covid-19.
A crisis in mental health is looming, and as a country we are not equipped to handle it.
But this was not unavoidable. Factors like health anxiety and disruption to people’s daily routines may have been inevitable, but it is not just the direct repercussions of a global pandemic that have caused such a significant deterioration in the nation’s mental health. This crisis is undoubtedly political. It is the result of choices made by the Conservative government and it didn’t have to be this way.
According to official figures, the number of workers on UK payrolls fell by 600,000 from March to May 2020, and the number of people claiming work-related benefits increased by a massive 126% in the same period.
Losing your job can be a hugely traumatic experience, resulting in a profoundly negative impact on mental health, irrespective of the circumstances. But the impact, in this case, has been compounded by an inadequate benefits system, which has left millions of people in Britain financially insecure.
Universal credit is often an administrative nightmare, with people waiting five weeks to receive their first payment. It also effectively excludes people with poor computer skills and those without internet access.
James, a journalist, slipped through the cracks in the government measures that were supposed to help people struggling financially during the pandemic. He recently went freelance, making him ineligible for the government grant for self-employed people, which requires three years of tax returns. Instead, he was forced to sign up for universal credit.
Due to a sharp increase in applications for universal credit, James was left without an income for two months. He describes himself as “a fairly tech-literate guy in my twenties, with experience working in admin jobs”, and a native English speaker, yet he still found the system “absolutely baffling and unfathomable”.
“It feels like the system is designed to be as user-hostile as possible,” he said. “I really feel sorry for people who are trying to access this service if their English isn’t great or they’re elderly and don’t understand the internet.”
In addition to being difficult to claim, universal credit remains extremely low. Due to Covid-19, the government decided to increase it from just £317.82 a month to £409.89. But this £92.07 does not make it enough to comfortably live on.
Universal credit is supposed to help vulnerable people in difficult circumstances, but too often it leaves them trapped in a cycle of poverty. Poverty has a well-established and well-documented effect on mental wellbeing and puts people at risk of greater mental ill-health.
Economy before all else.
For many people, financial precarity has compounded pressure to return to work before it is necessarily safe to do so.
The Conservative government’s focus when lifting lockdown measures has always been on restarting the economy, rather than safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of the British people. Driven by ideology rather than science, the government urged those who could not work from home to return to work, even as coronavirus deaths in the UK surpassed those in all other European countries.
Despite a YouGov poll suggesting that eight out of 10 people would prefer the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over the economy, Boris Johnson’s administration moved far more swiftly to open non-essential shops than it did to let people visit their friends, families and partners in their homes. The confusing and unclear advice about ‘bubbles’ only served to further muddy the waters.
This approach clearly didn’t work; we have seen in excess of 60,000 deaths in this country. With bars and pubs now open, we may soon see a spike in new infections.
The Tories’ approach has left people feeling unsafe and uncertain. It has left hundreds of thousands of people facing immense pressure to return to work before they feel ready to do so, and at the same time, it has deprived us of the human support systems necessary for good mental health.
A lack of clear guidance has left individuals having to make their own decisions about what is appropriate as lockdown lifts, and feeling personally responsible for any repercussions. Meanwhile, the government is able to dodge the blame if there is an uptick in deaths by blaming the actions of the public.
In the same way, throughout the pandemic, the government has clearly shifted responsibility for the nation’s mental health on to individuals. Although it is nothing new, this dangerous individualisation of mental health and wellbeing ultimately absolves the government of any responsibility and denies the impact of a decade of cuts and underfunding to mental health services.
The guidance published online by the government entirely puts the onus on people struggling with their mental health to ‘make themselves better’. It provides really basic suggestions about sleep and exercise that are well-known to people who suffer from mental illness. These measures are akin to using a sticking plaster for a gaping wound for those with chronic conditions, who have overwhelmingly seen their symptoms worsen during the crisis.
Charities are compensating for government failings.
And if getting enough rest and going for a walk doesn’t help? The official advice says you should call a helpline, again sloughing off responsibility to the charity sector.
A Samaritans spokesperson told Novara Media: “We are currently providing emotional support over 7,000 times a day (via phone, email and letters) and one in three calls for help to Samaritans are about coronavirus with people feeling anxious and distressed.”
They added: “We are also seeing an increase in first-time callers, people in prison, frequent callers, callers seeking advice, and people just wanting some human contact.”
The Department of Health and Social Care recently claimed that NHS mental health services have remained open, delivering support online and over the phone. But NHS mental health services have not remained open for everyone.
As Novara Media reported in May, already stretched mental health services have buckled under the pressure of the pandemic. Families say that patients have been discharged from inpatient wards before they are ready and without adequate support in place, putting them at risk and their friends and relatives under enormous pressures.
Mental health patients, meanwhile, report problems accessing services.
Lexie (not her real name), has bipolar disorder. When she reached crisis point during lockdown she was told that she would have to wait months to speak to a psychiatrist, despite being a high priority case and already plugged into mental health services. When her appointment date rolled around, she was told that it had been cancelled.
Lexie feels that “everything has changed” in terms of mental health services during lockdown. Before, she was able to get hold of key workers and psychiatrists regularly and felt her mental health was taken seriously.
In the past three months, even Lexie’s key worker has changed three times and she hasn’t been told why. To Lexie, the idea that mental health services have remained open and unaffected is absurd.
Meanwhile, Laura was left without support or medication for her ADHD – a behaviour disorder that can have serious mental health consequences if left untreated – during lockdown.
“I have had no access to meds and no communication whatsoever from the service,” Laura said. “I’m completely stuck and can’t do anything because I can’t afford to pay privately due to being on benefits. I’ve been left with a diagnosis that I have to come to terms with, with absolutely no support.”
New data from the Mental Health Foundation reveals that almost one in five UK adults is still feeling hopeless as lockdown lifts, rising to over a quarter in people who are unemployed.
So far Johnson’s government has failed to acknowledge the extent to which the country’s emotional health has been damaged by its handling of the coronavirus crisis – from its mixed messaging, to the way it left care home patients to die, to the disastrously late lockdown that resulted in so many avoidable deaths.
With its head in the sand, the Tory government is also unprepared for the crisis we are facing.
While it has provided £4.2m to mental health charities, plus £5m to the coronavirus mental health response fund, the government has failed to address the serious funding gaps left in the NHS by a decade of austerity, essentially expecting charitable organisations to pick up an enormous deficit in care which they are simply not equipped to meet.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the Tories’ cruel ideology has won out, with the economy protected above all else. Now we face another crisis, and this time we must not let them off the hook.
Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and mental health activist.
Anyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org.