We face 'greatest test of our mental health' this winter and must learn from first wave mistakes, experts warn

Phoebe Southworth
·3-min read
A man walks past a mural in Manchester - Oli Scarff/AFP
A man walks past a mural in Manchester - Oli Scarff/AFP

We face the "greatest test of our mental health" this winter and the Government must learn from mistakes made during the first wave, scientists and charities have warned as a second national lockdown looms.

An urgent winter support package funded by the Government, including face-to-face and online appointments with specialists, is needed to ensure vulnerable people with "disabling levels of fear and panic" who feel "distressed, lonely and isolated" aren't abandoned, experts have said.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said: "Millions of people are struggling with their mental health as a result of the pandemic. People with existing mental health problems, people at risk and now the general public are facing the greatest test of our mental health this year. Just last week, Mind saw the largest increase in calls to our Infoline.

"Far too many people aren’t getting the support they need resulting in increased strain on the NHS and more people ending up in crisis. The Government has to learn from what went wrong in the first wave of coronavirus and make sure people can access help early on, to protect people’s mental health and the NHS.

"As we face another national lockdown, we cannot see mental health bed capacity for example being sacrificed to ease pressure on other parts of the system this time round; demand for these beds is increasing and will only continue to do so as we head into winter.

"We’re concerned many people will fall through the gaps during a second lockdown."

Simon Wessely, Regius Professor of Psychiatry at King's College London, said: "It’s going to be tough, very tough. We already know that rates of depression, which is more than just feeling fed up, which I suspect is close on universal at the moment, have risen – from one in ten of the population this time last year to one in five, according to the Office of National Statistics, and this is hardly going to make that better.

"The fact that there is also no end in sight, and that the same circle will be repeated several more times until sufficient numbers of the population have developed some form of immunity, either via infection or vaccination, may also create what we call “learned helplessness”  since despite all our efforts, we and our neighbours seem back to Square 1.

"The strong sense of togetherness and consent that we had earlier hasn’t vanished, but the gradual rise in coercive measures suggests that too it is in decline”.

Linda Bauld, Bruce and John Usher Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said another lockdown means "more suffering for many".

"Levels of depression and anxiety reduced across the country when stay at home measures were eased from mid to late May. But they started to rise again from mid September when new restrictions were introduced," she added.

Ann John, a professor of medicine at Swansea University, said communication that help is available is essential.

"Strong messages that mental health services are still open for business and advice on how to maintain social connection (which could be supported by practical measures like mobile phone data) are needed alongside support for those facing domestic violence," she said.

Hestia, a London-based charity supporting adults in crisis, said the number of people trying to access their help is 40 per cent higher now compared with last year, with the pandemic seeing "support networks cut off overnight".

Evan Kontopantelis, professor of data science and health services research at Manchester University, said the Government should allow human interaction which carries the "highest net benefit".

Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health charity, added that "clear, compassionate communication with the public" will help reduce fear and uncertainty.