Authors: Dame Sue Bailey, Bevan Commissioner, Andy Bell
The Covid-19 global pandemic is a health emergency unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetime. Increasingly, it is bringing attention to the mental a physical health impacts of the crisis, and in so doing shining a light on some stark realities.
Realities that have always been there but which now stand out much more noticeably.
In ‘normal’ times, we know that about one in four of us experiences a mental health difficulty of some kind, most commonly depression or anxiety, although poor mental health can affect anyone, and most of us at some point in our lives.. That makes mental health problems among the most common health conditions of all, affecting every family, every workplace and every community.
However, we know that our chances of having a mental health problem are far from equal. Children from the least wealthy households are four times as likely to have a mental health problem by the age of 11 than those from the wealthiest. Rates of mental ill health are twice as high among people with long-term conditions, people with learning disabilities and older people living in care homes, while people from many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities also face a higher risk of poor mental health in adult life. We now know from a growing evidence base that our mental health is influenced by our environment at every stage in our lives, and that poverty and inequality, fear and insecurity, violence and abuse, and loneliness and isolation all put us at risk of poorer mental health. Put simply, inequalities in society drive inequalities in mental health.
Sadly, many of these same inequalities are now being seen to put some people at a higher risk of developing severe illness from coronavirus, and of losing their lives.
We do not yet know whether people living with a mental illness are at a greater risk from coronavirus. But we do know that the virus itself, and the measures being taken to try to control its spread, are having a damaging impact on people’s mental health and likely to lead to an increase in poor mental health across the population over the next year. The trauma of being treated in intensive care, of losing a loved one in such troubling circumstances, or of working in hospitals treating people with the virus, are likely to have put people at greater risk of mental health difficulties both immediately and longer-term.
For many more, a loss of livelihood resulting from the lockdown, increased exposure to violence and abuse at home, and the effects of quarantine in reducing social networks will all have significant effects on mental health. While most people who are feeling frightened, stressed and anxious now will recover quickly as we return to some kind of normality, for many the psychological legacy will last much longer and cause long-lasting distress.
These are troubling realities, but we can take action now to protect and promote mental health, to offer effective help to people who need it and to bring about lasting change as a legacy from the crisis. We can equip schools and businesses with the knowledge and tools they need to enable children and adults to return to ‘normal’ in a safe and secure environment to help them to process the trauma many have experienced in their own ways. We can ensure that people who have been treated for coronavirus or suffered a bereavement are offered help for their mental health so that they know support is there if they need it. We can reach out to people with long-term conditions, offering psychological support alongside the care they get for their physical health.
By putting our mental health at the heart of the recovery from Covid-19, we can help heal society both immediately – in addressing some of the most serious effects of the pandemic in communities – and for the long-term, making changes to health and care that have been needed for some time but which are now more important than ever.