Health

The Guardian view on mental health: this emergency requires a response | Editorial


The toll on the UK’s mental health caused by the pandemic is becoming much clearer. The dismaying, if unsurprising, news as shops and businesses reopen is that fears that Covid would result in higher levels of mental illness have been borne out. What is particularly disturbing about the warning issued by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on Friday is that it most strongly applies to children. There were 80,226 more under-18s referred to NHS mental health services in England between April and December last year than in the same period in 2019. The number of children and young people needing emergency care rose 20% to 18,269, while the number of adults needing emergency treatment reached a record high of 159,347.

Parity of esteem for mental health was supposedly enshrined in law in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. But the promise was not fulfilled. Five years later, Theresa May named the lack of support for people with mental illnesses as one of the “burning injustices” that she hoped her premiership would address. But the prospect of measures such as legal limits on waiting times for talking therapies, which have long been in place for A&E and other hospital treatments, appears more remote than ever. Instead, research consistently points to the enormous difficulty of accessing services. Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, published analysis showing that more than a third of those referred to child and adolescent mental health services received no treatment; another third waited more than a year.

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Pandemic conditions are likely to make it even harder to raise mental healthcare from its Cinderella status. The NHS’s focus is, more than ever, on hospitals, inpatients, vaccinations and intensive care – along with the people who work in these areas. Complex issues surrounding the estimated 1.1 million people who are ill with long Covid also require attention. Then there is the backlog of operations that has built up, while resources have been redirected towards Covid.

Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, describes the situation as “terrifying”. The fact that large numbers of frontline NHS workers are also experiencing anxiety and depression only adds to the severity of the crisis. But while the scale of the challenge might appear overwhelming, confronting it head-on is the only sensible option. It is true that millions of people are coping with difficult circumstances, including bereavement. Emotions of loneliness, anger and sadness are not symptoms. But it isn’t good enough for ministers, or anyone else, to talk up resilience while ignoring evidence that hundreds of thousands of people are in need of professional help. As well as being wrong, this only stores up trouble for the future.

New resources and, crucially, staff are obviously needed. Plans for the NHS workforce must include the recruitment of mental health nurses, doctors and psychotherapists. But ministers also need to show more emotional intelligence. The announcement of school “behaviour hubs” last week sent completely the wrong message. Millions of people’s lives have been disrupted by coronavirus. Tens of thousands of adults and children have been tipped over the edge into mental illness. If equilibrium is to be restored, both to these individuals and the society to which they belong, it is necessary to admit the problem. As well as the physiological and economic damage caused by Covid, policymakers must recognise the harm caused to people’s minds.

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