“A perfect storm of mental illness” Health Committee hears

The Senedd’s Health Committee is today calling on the Welsh Government to put mental health at the centre of its COVID-19 recovery plans after hearing from a range of experts on the impact of the pandemic on mental health.

In a report launching today the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee is raising serious concerns about people’s access to mental health services and has heard worrying evidence about the availability of support.

Mind Cymru found that more than half of adults and three quarters of young people reported that their mental health had worsened during the lockdown period and that 18% of adults and 39% of young people who tried to access mental health support have been unable to do so. Evidence given to the Committee shows that people have struggled to access support across the spectrum of needs, from early intervention and primary support services to crisis care in an emergency.

The Committee is recommending that the Welsh Government make sure that both the short and longer term mental health impacts of the pandemic are central considerations in its response to the pandemic and recovery planning, and that mental health experts and evidence are part of decision-making.

Parity between physical and mental health

In 2018, in its report on suicide prevention, ‘Everybody’s Business’, the Health Committee raised serious concerns about the ability of people to access appropriate and timely mental health support, not least in times of crisis. Similar concerns were raised by the Children, Young People and Education Committee in its 2018 ‘Mind Over Matter’ report and its 2020 update report.

The Committee believes that the ongoing effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health and wellbeing makes access to mental health support even more important. Mental health services should not be de-prioritised during this time, or during any further waves of Covid-19, and the mental health workforce should be protected from redeployment.

Repeatedly the Committee has highlighted the need for parity between mental and physical health. It is unacceptable that mental health services are not prioritised in the same way as physical health. The Committee is concerned that insufficient progress was being made in implementing this recommendation prior to the pandemic, and that the impact of Covid-19 will only set this back further.

Suicide and self-harm

Although the Committee recognises that it is too early for official data to show whether the pandemic is having an effect on suicide rates, it strongly believes that we should be acting now to mitigate the risks, not waiting for the statistics. Many of the risk factors for suicide will be exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported seeing an increase in suicide attempts and self-harm, both in young people and older adults, but suggested the main impact is yet to come.

The Royal College told the Committee:

“I think what we have created is a perfect storm of mental illness. We know that there are three very well-known risk factors for both depression and suicide, and, unfortunately, COVID, and the restrictions that have been associated with them, and the outcome of those, have increased those risk factors.”

The Welsh Government has set up a task and finish group for suicide prevention; the Committee is calling for the Welsh Government to closely monitor any emerging impact on suicide and self-harm rates as we move through the pandemic and to urgently update the Committee with further details of the remit of this group and the timescales it is working to.

Bereavement support

The Committee also heard from those who have suffered a loss during the pandemic. It heard of the traumatic experiences of losing loved ones at a time when they have not been able to be with them at the end of their life and could not seek comfort from friends and family in the usual way. This could have long lasting implications for their mental health.

Samaritans Cymru told the Committee:

“Until you’ve been bereaved, you don’t necessarily realise that someone can have a good death, (…). And the features of it, which include being there (…), a lot of those have been impossible under COVID-19 restrictions. And so, we should be really concerned about the lack of the features that you would want when someone is dying, and I think, yes, we should be vigilant for the impact of that on individuals and on communities as well.”

The Minister for Mental Health, Wellbeing and the Welsh Language recently announced that a National Bereavement Steering Group had been set up and a national framework for bereavement care in Wales was being developed, including training for staff and volunteers and a directory of available bereavement services.

The Committee is recommending that the Welsh Government pursue the development of a national framework for bereavement care to make sure services are there to meet the increasing needs of those who have lost someone as a result of Covid-19 and those who were unable to be with their loved one at the end of life.

Dr Dai Lloyd MS, Chair of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee:

“COVID-19 has brought many challenges, not just in terms of its physical effects but also its impact on people’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Being cut off from family, friends and other support networks for long periods of time has had a profound effect. We know that more than half of adults and three quarters of young people feel their mental health has worsened during the lockdown period.

“Wales has been through a national trauma over the last nine months and the Welsh Government must recognise that the effect on people’s mental health is a serious consequence of the pandemic. Whether because of lockdown restrictions causing loneliness and isolation, job losses, financial hardship or bereavements, people need access to mental health support and treatment like never before.

“The need for parity between physical and mental health has been a recurring theme throughout much of the Health Committee’s work and COVID-19 has brought this into sharp relief. It is simply not acceptable that mental health services are not prioritised in the same way as physical health and this cannot be allowed to continue.”