OPINION
10/06/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 10/06/2020 09:28 BST

The Nation's Mental Health Needs Our Attention

We need a long-term action plan for mental health support, just as much as a plan for the economic recovery, Luciana Berger writes.

For all the talk of a “new normal”, the reality is a social and economic system torn up by the roots, and no-one really knows what things will look like in a year’s time. We are rightly discussing the immediate impact of Covid-19 on our health and social care systems, and dedicating the combined efforts of government and people towards preventing further deaths. 

We are also contemplating the dire economic forecasts, and a global downturn worse than the financial crash of 2007 and 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people will find their job or business has gone. A generation of young people will discover their travel, education and work opportunities severely curtailed, just as life should be filled with promise. 

There’s a further aspect that needs addressing as a priority – the mental health implications of the pandemic and its aftermath. We know from previous recessions that there are long-term mental health challenges when people are out of work, lose their homes, find their status and incomes diminished, or fall into poverty. The psychological effects of recession are chronic and widespread. 

Maria Symchych-Navrotska via Getty Images
Cute girl talking with her grandmother within video chat on laptop, digital conversation, life in quarantine time, self-isolation

Added to this are the impacts of the disease itself. We know from analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that the pandemic has negatively impacted the population’s mental wellbeing, with nearly half the population recently reporting high levels of anxiety. People are suffering from terrible loneliness and separation from friends and families. People living in cramped accommodation are getting on each other’s nerves. Relationships are strained. 

Parents – myself included – have learned a fast lesson in how hard it is to educate and entertain children day after day. For millions of people with complex needs, and the people who care for them, the pandemic has made a challenging situation much worse. The heroes we clap each Thursday remain under huge pressure, especially if there is a second surge in the virus. They have been through hell, and some will show signs of PTSD and other mental health conditions. The population is under a significant psychological strain, and this will inevitably have an adverse effect on the nation’s mental health for months and years to come.

And of course, at the front of our minds, are the thousands of people who have lost their parents, spouses, partners, children, relations, neighbours and friends to this terrible disease. The nature of most Covid-19 deaths, in hospital or a care home away from family and friends, has made it worse for the people they leave behind. In the absence of the traditional rites and rituals of funeral and mourning – the opportunity to just share a hug – the process of bereavement has been made even harder to bear.  

The nation is hurting, and the process of healing must start now.

We need a long-term action plan for mental health support, just as much as a plan for the economic recovery. For many people who face anxieties, depression, trauma or grief that dominate their lives, a vital source of support may be a counsellor or psychotherapist. As vice president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), I’ve witnessed how therapists are at the frontline of providing support for those in need. But at the same time, over the past few months, many providers, independent practitioners and charities have seen funding cuts to their service and the number of funded sessions reduce. 

The BACP expects demand for counsellors and psychotherapists to increase over the next few weeks and months, as people recognise they need some support. That’s why I’m backing the Association’s calls for the government to put in place a long-term plan to ensure the nation’s mental health needs are met, and to work in collaboration with professional organisations and service providers. This request complements the call for a Resilience Taskforce (to plan for the psychological and social consequences of the pandemic), which was launched this week by Sir Norman Lamb.  

Ministers have made promises of support for mental health charities and there have been discussions of what the NHS can do. Part of this must be proper resources for counselling and psychotherapy, especially to support bereaved people, for those “locked down” with their abuser within a relationship, for vulnerable children, for older people, and for those going through the shock of losing their jobs. 

Counsellors and psychotherapists are the people who are listening to those in need right now, helping them to explore and understand how they are feeling about this unprecedented situation and their own unique personal circumstances. They are helping people come to terms with what they have been through and supporting them to thrive as they move on to their own “new normal”.

Counselling and psychotherapy must be accessible to those most affected by the disease, including BAME communities, families in deprived areas and frontline workers, and the millions who do not receive mental health support through their employer. We need a campaign to explain how to ask for help, what kinds of support are available, and to ensure people are matched to qualified therapists. And ministers need to remedy the fact that many therapists are self-employed and fall through the cracks of the government’s existing support schemes. 

The nation is hurting, and the process of healing must start now. 

Luciana Berger is vice president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).