NHS Staff Are Suffering A Hidden Mental Health Crisis

Our frontline workers have been left out in the cold by this government, writes Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP.
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As the days grow shorter, it is a reminder of just how long we have been living with Covid-19.

Over six months ago, we went into lockdown and all our lives were fundamentally altered by this virus. Since that time, we have suffered the highest level of excess deaths in Europe, the deepest recession in the G7, and tragically, one of the highest rates of healthcare worker deaths.

While the UK has been trailing behind the rest of the world on so many metrics, sadly, with respect to the response to the mental health crisis left in the wake of Covid-19, it is no different.

Our frontline NHS and care staff have been left out in the cold by this government, and without action this winter – it’s going to get colder.

The reality on the frontline was that health and care staff were working in situations that they had never been trained for. Many were redeployed, proud to play their part in the national fight against this virus. Soon however, they were seeing their colleagues, friends and loved ones falling ill.

In May alone, over 500,000 sick days were taken by NHS staff owing to mental ill health, an increase of a third from May 2019. There’s a hidden crisis taking place and the knock-on effect this has on the NHS is damaging.

Our children and young people have also had their lives turned upside down. Schools were closed, their exams results were a debacle and now students are locked in university accommodation with people they have only just met.

“This government likes to pretend that this was “unavoidable”, but the extent of this crisis was anything but.”

The education secretary acknowledged the mental health impact on students, but stopped short of offering any solution. The minister for mental health this week said she “just does not recognise” the difficulties our young people are facing.

As people across so many sectors are losing their jobs, and some are being told that their careers are unviable, the government is silent on their wellbeing and how to support people through one of the worst recessions globally.

This government likes to pretend that this was “unavoidable”, but the extent of this crisis was anything but.

Across Europe, countries have had a very different outlook on the importance of mental health and have sought to address the very problems that are placing a huge strain on people’s mental health in the UK.

Wales and France have been supporting healthcare workers’ mental health, with psychological support being offered to address the unique difficulties that staff have experienced.

The Welsh government has focused on children’s mental health by developing a Young Person’s Mental Health Toolkit and announcing £5 million of mental health support for schools to allow for an increase in staffing to deliver counselling services in schools.

Perhaps most crucially, other countries appear to have grasped the importance of collecting data on the mental health of their populations.

Germany, France, Ireland and Switzerland have all been conducting research throughout the pandemic to track how people’s mental health is affected by Covid-19, with Switzerland focusing on the most vulnerable groups in society and studying the extent of economic impacts and what that means for people’s lives. Where is that level of detail from the UK government?

“Daily life has changed, and positive reminders of how everyday life can be enjoyable and how we can look after ourselves are vital to wellbeing.”

Government ministers have tried to explain their lack of action away by claiming that they’ve been focusing on the virus. But this separation of mental health from physical health is extremely dangerous. As a quarter of all health need is mental health related, it’s alarming that the government does not recognise its importance during a health crisis.

From the start of lockdown in March, Public Health France were conducting surveys to assess the impact of Covid-19 and prevention measures on the public. There has simply been a lack of political will to do the same in here in the UK.

Ahead of a second spike, and a particularly cold, dark and lonely winter, the government has a chance to learn from its neighbours. I urge the government to learn from the freephone numbers and online signposting of mental health support offered by Germany, France, Ireland and Switzerland.

Daily life has changed, and positive reminders of how everyday life can be enjoyable and how we can look after ourselves, such as by exercising, sitting down and having a proper breakfast, and speaking to family, are vital to wellbeing.

Public Health France has put out videos that show the small things we can do in our daily lives that can promote more positive feelings, in order to encourage a healthier population.

We have a long road ahead, but we don’t have to be left behind. The government still has time to learn and, this World Mental Health Day, I urge them to put mental health at the heart of their response to Covid-19 and to pledge to give it the attention and resources it will need beyond this crisis.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan is MP for Tooting and Labour’s shadow minister for mental health.

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Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.


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