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A viral epidemic is becoming a mental health epidemic, but does the Long Term Plan need a rethink to cope?

Words by:
Associate Director
June 3, 2020

Just 18 months on from the launch of the NHS Long Term Plan, is it already outdated when it comes to mental health?

As the focus of health policymakers moves from coping with COVID-19 to catching-up care across all conditions, attention is increasingly turning to the mental health catastrophe we face.

The challenge is not only stark for people living with mental ill health. It also threatens the carefully-laid strategy put in place before the pandemic struck.

Improving mental health care was at the heart of the Plan, with a promise to “deliver the fastest expansion in mental health services in the NHS’s history”. The ambition to finally establish parity with physical health was supported by significant funding across acute and community support.

But COVID has moved the goalposts and cut the game time. For this reason, the NHS can’t simply pick up where it left off with the mental health aims in the Plan. Somehow now it must go much further, and faster.

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health

It is clear that the pandemic is both a cause and compounder of mental illness.

Broadly speaking there are now two groups of patients with considerable and potentially long-term needs:

Firstly, those who already had and were undergoing treatment for an existing mental illness. COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have made access to primary services, support and therapies more challenging. It is likely that this has led to relapses and more acute mental health needs.

A recent survey by Rethink Mental Illness found 80% of people living with mental illness say the crisis has made their mental health worse. Almost half surveyed have struggled to access services.

Secondly, there is a wave of new patients who have developed mental illness as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown. Triggers are wide-ranging, including stress regarding job insecurity, grief, isolation and anxiety over the future. There are also particular concerns over the long term impact on young people.

Each group will have different needs, with a complex mix of therapies, treatments and support. But the modelling of mental health services within the Long Term Plan was not designed to cope with a spike in acute cases or for a whole wave of new ones.

Further, as the implementation of the Plan was still in its infancy when COVID struck, much of the work will have been disrupted or delayed at the least.

What does the response look like?

This emerging backlog and new wave of patients requiring care will exert a pressure on services that hasn’t been experienced before. The NHS therefore needs to rapidly reassess how to respond to the challenge.

For example, the Long Term Plan aimed to expand mental health support services for an extra 345,000 children and young people aged 0-25, including through schools and colleges. Following months of school closures and the risks faced by vulnerable children, that number will now need to be much higher and rolled out with greater urgency. This is an additional and complex challenge for headteachers facing already unprecedented difficulties as schools look to reopen.

The ambition to expand community and hospital services, including talking therapies and mental health liaison teams is also a core part of the Long Term Plan’s aims. This has been seen as a long-overdue measure to provide the appropriate level of care for hundreds of thousands more people with common or severe mental illnesses. But policymakers and the health service will have to consider what a best ‘new normal’ and staffing levels looks like to ensure services can provide the levels needed.

There are glimpses of positives. NHS England has brought forward implementation of a 24/7 crisis helpline and announced extra funding for the mental health charities at the frontline of dealing with the COVID fallout during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Yet the money attached to mental health in the LTP is now superseded by the new situation. Undoubtedly more will be needed.

A new generation of political leadership

While not all will agree with Luciana Berger or Norman Lamb’s politics, Parliament lost two of its biggest mental health champions in December. New parliamentary mental health champions are stepping forward and they have an important job to play.

Promisingly, beyond COVID, mental health is the key health issue for parliamentarians. WA’s January survey of the new parliament’s health priorities saw mental health care emerge as MPs’ top priority for additional NHS funding, with two thirds choosing it as an option. But despite growing awareness of the looming mental health crisis, there has been little political focus on what needs to happen next.

It is essential that the progress made over the past few years in mental health doesn’t fall to the wayside because of COVID. A rapid review of the Long Term Plan – with a COVID lens – backed up by sufficient funding and implementation, is needed to stop the viral health epidemic becoming a mental health epidemic.

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