Research suggests that people with pre-existing mental health problems were more likely to face deteriorating or consistently poor mental health during the pandemic.
In our volunteers’ conversations with callers, three key themes were raised: access to mental health support and services, quality of mental health support and loss of community support.
Access to mental health support and services
Even before the pandemic, mental health services were struggling to cope with demand. For people who needed support, coronavirus meant reduced access to already-strained mental health services. One report found that almost half of people with mental health problems in Scotland felt they did not get care or treatment because of the pandemic. Services have seen patients arriving at crisis point, with more severe needs, as well as a higher proportion of first-time patients, and practitioners have also raised concerns about increased demand.
According to our volunteers, many callers to our helpline expressed worries about reduced access to mental health support throughout the year, even throughout the easing of restrictions in the summer across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Callers spoke to volunteers about a range of barriers to accessing support, including mental health and crisis teams being unavailable, appointments being cancelled, long waits for treatment and difficulties getting referrals through GPs. For those with pre-existing mental health conditions, the pandemic led to reduced access to the mental health support and services they had previously used.
Quality of mental health support
Health and social care organisations have worked hard to maintain support services during the pandemic, but some of our callers said that the mental health support available to them was inadequate. In the early months of the first lockdown our callers started to report that the mental health support they received was patchy and unreliable. In the months that followed, we heard that the lack of face-to-face support in particular was a concern among callers, with online support confusing and much less effective for some.
The uncertainty around if and when care will resume to ‘normal’ and feelings of abandonment were major concerns among people trying to access support for their mental health. Since early in the pandemic, callers spoke to our volunteers about feeling neglected by mental health services, and as time progressed this increasingly generated feelings of frustration and hopelessness.
Quite a few callers have found it difficult to talk to their GP or mental health worker or feel that they are not being listened to, they feel that their concerns are just dismissed. They feel like they don't matter and are being forgotten or neglected.
Loss of community support
Volunteers reported that limited access to networks of community support, such as meeting with friends, going out for coffee or for walks, was a prominent theme for people with pre-existing mental health conditions throughout the year. In many cases, this was directly linked to coronavirus, with callers feeling torn about doing activities that might reduce their feelings of isolation, but might increase their chance of catching coronavirus. This was a common cause of anxiety for all groups, but appears to have had a greater impact on people with pre-existing mental health conditions, who may be more reliant on community support to maintain wellbeing.
A very regular occurrence is callers becoming depressed due to not seeing people and not leaving the house much, or anxiety over contracting the virus and meeting others after restrictions are lifted, or pre-existing diagnoses being worsened for these reasons.
Volunteers found that lack of community and social support was causing particular hardship during the second wave of restrictions in October 2020. This suggests that the return of restrictions may have been more challenging than the initial lockdown, which is supported by evidence of a “pulling together” effect in the early lockdown, that may not have carried through to later restrictions.
The combination of lost routine, a lack of access to community-based coping mechanisms and reduced mental health support meant many with mental health conditions found it harder to cope throughout the pandemic.
Lack of contact with others, lack of routines to give life some framework, lack of contact with community support and mental health workers, all exacerbated mental and emotional conditions enormously.
To find out more about how people with pre-existing mental health conditions have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, and what we think should be done to support them, follow the link below to read our policy brief. If you are reporting on this issue, please refer to our media guidelines.