Our collective mental health has taken a big hit from COVID-19. From the pressures and isolation of lockdown, to losing people to the virus or another illness, worrying about money, jobs and access to services… the contributory factors are many and varied.

For those already suffering from mental health problems, the virus has added to their distress. And for people who have never experienced anxiety or depression, the pandemic has brought these issues into their lives. So how should the UK tackle these problems and what is the official strategy for mental health provision?

No clear Government strategy for mental health services in the wake of COVID

The Government acknowledges that the mental health of the nation is under immense pressure. You can read their advice here. However, there was a systemic problem with mental health services in the UK before COVID-19. Years of underfunding and reluctance to plough resources into creating a secure infrastructure of support has left mental health services struggling to cope.

And while there is a growing amount of information, support, assistance and advice available online, how useful this is for people depends on the level of their distress. Some sufferers of mental health issues need more help than self-help, and without money to pay for private therapists or doctors, it can be difficult to access.

Increase in mental health problems for UK adults since lockdown

Add in the pandemic and soaring numbers of people with mental health problems, and the services are woefully inadequate. A recent report from mental health charity Mind is called ‘The Mental Health Emergency’. And that is very much where the UK is positioned at the moment.

Data from the report shows that more than half of UK adults are reporting deteriorating mental health since lockdown started. This highlights the enormous toll the abrupt change to our lifestyles and ensuing social isolation took on us all. A report from Nuffield Health reports similar information, with 80% of people working from home during lockdown stating it has a “negative impact” on their mental health. While lockdown measures are easing, it’s far from clear for millions of people how long it will take for society to get back to normal. Should there be a second winter wave of the virus, there may only be a ‘new normal’ until a vaccine is created and available.

For all of these reasons and many more, it’s now vital that the UK Government lays out some funding and plans for the mental health service in this country. The impact of this situation created in me a need to make a real difference, so I’m now training as a mental health counsellor. But I think this about systemic change. We need some tangible intervention at a state level to ensure that there are adequate paths to help for those who need it.

Is prevention possible as a mental health strategy?

The Mental Health Foundation has unveiled its strategy for 2020-2025, which is based on prevention. They say that “prevention of poor mental health is not only possible, but urgently needed.”

Statistics show that in the UK one in eight young people (aged between 5 and 19) and one in six adults meet the criteria for a mental health problem every single week. Suicide kills more people of both sexes between 15 and 35 than anything else. In short, mental health problems are causing the physical problems for which there are more resources.

Causes of mental health issues are complex and wide-ranging. Poverty, trauma and emotional neglect contribute to our mental health. And evidence from the last three decades gives more evidence to show that genetic, economic, social, emotional and family factors all combine to push us towards or away from mental health issues.

The Mental Health Foundation is advocating for changes at a societal level, as well as new solutions that go beyond the current medical provision. There should be help available in communities, neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and at every level of society. Our aim should be to reduce the severity of the problems people suffer and implement profound changes to make this happen.

Balancing the inequalities across UK must start now

COVID-19 has also shone a light on the stark inequalities in the UK that affect mental health and access to help. While the general population has experienced a sharp decline in mental health according to a survey published in The Lancet Psychiatry, there is evidence to show there’s a marked difference between groups.

The inequalities that were already in existence before the crisis have been magnified. Households with low incomes are reporting higher levels of clinically significant mental health issues. Women are suffering more than men, and young people are reporting more issues too.

As the economic impact of the pandemic continues to hit people at the lowest income level, we’re going to see more and more mental health problems. When the furlough scheme ends, and the other measures implemented by the Government at the height of lockdown, such as mortgage holidays, I think we’ll see another big spike in mental health problems. It’s now essential for the Government to begin to address these issues and offer some tangible help.