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Mental Health Minister hears from people with mental health problems affected by pandemic

Wednesday, 22 July 2020 Mind

Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, Nadine Dorries MP, listened to the experiences of a range of people with mental health problems and those who help support them at a virtual roundtable.

On Thursday 16 July 2020, people who work in mental health and live with mental health problems shared their experiences of how the pandemic had affected their mental health and their access to treatment with MPs during an online event hosted by mental health charity Mind.

Minister for Mental Health Nadine Dorries said:

“We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s mental health. I am committed to working closely across the NHS, Public Health England and charities as part of a combined effort, so no one has to cope with mental illness alone.

“Hearing first-hand the personal stories of those who had mental illness exacerbated by lockdown, or experienced difficulty in getting help, has made me more determined than ever to ensure we address the long-term consequences of the virus on our mental wellbeing.

“The NHS remains open to support those who are struggling – including delivering support digitally and over the phone - and I would urge anyone who needs help to reach out.”

The event comes on the back of a recent Mind survey of more than 16,000 people aged 13 and over which revealed the scale of the impact of the pandemic on people with mental health problems.

  • Two in three (65%) adults over 25 and three in four (75%) young people aged 13-24 with an existing mental health problem reported worse mental health.

  • Of those who tried to access NHS mental health services, around one in four were unable to get support - 24% of those aged 25 and over and 28% of those aged 13-24.

  • For adults aged 25 and over living in social housing, around one in two (52%) said their mental health was poor or very poor, and around two in three (67%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown.

Mind’s survey also showed that existing inequalities in housing, employment, finances and other issues have had a greater impact on the mental health of people from different Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) groups than White people during the coronavirus pandemic. Survey data from 14,000 people aged 25 and over showed:

  • Employment worries have negatively affected the mental health of 61% of BAME people, compared to 51% of White people.
  • Other issues saw a similar pattern, including getting support for a physical health problem (39% vs 29%) and being a carer (30% vs 23%).

After analysing survey data, Mind identified five key tests for Government to better protect and promote everyone’s mental health:

  • Invest in community services
  • Protect those most at risk  
  • Reform the Mental Health Act   
  • Provide a financial safety net 
  • Support children and young people

Now more than ever the nation’s mental health needs protecting. 

Vivienne is from East London. She has personal experience of mental health problems and also works as a mental health worker for the NHS and says:  

“I work in mental health services in East London in Homerton. I have depression and anxiety and have received external support from talking therapies through the NHS (sometimes known as IAPT) for the last few years.

“Covid19 made it difficult to handle routines and support systems through IAPT which were not accessible anymore. But the constant changes from the NHS made things difficult. It felt unreal, almost like in a horror film. Wards closed down, we were short of PPE – we had to reach out to charities for makeshift PPE.

“Patients were stressed about getting the virus and then the virus spread in the inpatient unit. We lost people to the virus. You try not to blame yourself, but you’re exhausted and feel powerless. Then on top of everything, and my anxiety and depression, I experienced physical symptoms of my mental health problems. One of the hardest parts was moving away from home and being displaced in every aspect. That was the last straw for me. I was in temporary accommodation with other staff who had the virus.

“The PHE report about Black Asian and other minority ethnic people being disproportionately affected by coronavirus was terrifying – not just for me as a black woman, but my friends and family who are black. There was a lack of support for NHS staff full stop, but especially BAME staff. Claps were great, but they do not accumulate to anything. There needed to be extra specialist support for people from different Black and Asian communities – things in place to reduce the risk factors.”

When asked what the Government should be doing to protect health workers from different BAME backgrounds, Vivienne said:  

“Going forward there needs to be enhanced physical health checks and mental health and wellbeing support for BAME staff within the workplace, especially health and social care services. They talked about it, but it didn’t happen.”

Emily Nuttall lives in Guernsey. She has experienced depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. Shared her experiences of coronavirus and lockdown on her mental health, she says:

“Coronavirus turned my world upside down in a matter of days. One of my main coping strategies to help me manage my anxiety, depression and anorexia is to have a stabilised routine for my days. Structure is something that has always been important to keeping me well and staying out of hospital, which included set times for therapy, self-care and seeing friends and family and many of my hobbies that helped to improve my wellbeing and give me a purpose in my life and keep me on my road to recovery.

“Suddenly and unexpectedly being thrown into lockdown as a result of the virus affecting the supported accommodation that I live in, meant that I had to be confined to my flat for 12 weeks, unable to leave. I had to rely on others to do my shopping and having anorexia and a meal plan and many challenges faced in supermarkets this was such a distressing and terrifying prospect. I was confined to the two rooms of my flat with no access to the outside world in person.

“In terms of treatment, prior to the lockdown I was receiving therapy twice a week face to face which included talking and art therapies and meal therapy support. Having experienced trauma and abuse in my life - building trust with people takes a very long time. When face to face therapy suddenly stopped without any warning or planning followed by delayed therapy by telephone and zoom calls, my mind was overwhelmed. I was scared and lost and confused, fearing I would relapse quickly or even be readmitted back into inpatient treatment, which was close to happening a couple of times.

“Normally being busy would mean my mind would be distracted from intrusive anorexia thoughts, flashbacks and my suicidal thoughts, it would give me a way to stay well and focussed. Being alone with your own mind stuck inside was like being confined to a prison cell 24/7 with no way out, a washing machine on a full cycle with endless emotions, thoughts, flashbacks and anxieties and fears churning round and round.

“Being in recovery from trauma also meant that every hour of every day my mind was exposed to distressing and terrifying flashbacks which haunted my every moment which was frightening and distressing. Although I was extremely grateful that my support could resume via phone and zoom and crisis interventions from my local Mind and regular telephone calls, this delay was difficult.”

At the start of this crisis, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) introduced some measures to help support people during lockdown, including scrapping benefits sanctions and face-to-face assessments. These are steps Mind has long been calling for to help improve the experiences of people with mental health problems, but unfortunately, lots of these measures were only temporary.

Rosa and Zad are welfare rights advisors, who help people with mental health problems who need support from the benefits system to access disability benefits. 

Rosa said:

“I work at a local Mind supporting people with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims. Before the coronavirus emergency, one of my clients suddenly lost £150 a week in benefits. We supported her to appeal this at the beginning of February, but they still haven’t sent us the information we need for her appeal. We were told the DWP had longer to respond due to the pandemic. She’s only managed to survive the last few months due to her local Mutual Aid support and emergency grants that we've been able to help her access. But this can’t continue indefinitely. The uncertainty has created an awful lot of distress to the point where she has been suicidal. In addition, we don’t know when the hearing will be and what form it will take. The DWP keeps failing to communicate with us about what is happening. Us and the claimants are very much in the dark at the moment.”

Zad said:

“A lot of disability benefits assessments just aren’t being done at the moment. I have a client with very severe depression, who hasn’t left the house in months. I’ve been having to refer him to the food bank every week and I’ve been trying to call Universal Credit to say he has a severe disability and he needs to have an assessment. But the only answer I’ve been getting is that they want to prioritise people who are not getting any money at all. It’s as if getting your disability entitlement is some sort of luxury that you get as an extra and not a priority. I’m very worried about the situation. I worry there are many, many people who have lost out on thousands and thousands of pounds that they need to survive. The DWP seems to have no interest in responding to these worries so far.”

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:

“We’re so grateful to everyone who candidly shared their experiences with us and with those who have the power to change policy. The stories we heard from Emily and Vivienne show us how the pandemic can disproportionately affect those of us with mental health problems. Now we urgently need to see the Government put mental health at the heart of all plans as we come together to recover from this devastating virus.

“The immediate impact of isolation, fears about the virus itself and inadequate access to NHS mental health services will, for many, ease as lockdown is lifted and life starts to return to normal. We’re pleased that the Minister has had the opportunity to hear directly about people’s experiences and about the importance of all Government departments prioritising mental health. We know that problems with housing, employment and finances are all connected to our mental health. We’re concerned that these kinds of issues - which disproportionately affect people from different BAME communities - will likely last much longer and become worse as the Government brings to an end the measures they introduced to protect people from evictions, unemployment and redundancy - including furlough, better Statutory Sick Pay and Universal Credit. Given we’re facing a recession and unemployment figures are already high, we cannot afford to get this wrong. Mental health should be the responsibility of every government department, and we need to see action now.

“The Government must urgently plan for recovery from both the immediate mental health crisis we are facing, and the longer-term fall out of the pandemic on our mental health.”

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