By Sarah Steeg, University of Manchester
During the UK's first COVID-19 lockdown, people were encouraged to participate in the fight against the virus by receiving a 'stay home, protect the NHS, save lives' message. While there were no specific instructions to avoid seeking medical care, the number of people turning to general practitioners and visiting emergency rooms has dropped dramatically. At the same time, people's mental health deteriorated due to the pandemic.
My colleagues and I wanted to know how the COVID-19 pandemic and related public health reports will affect people in the mental health field received during the pandemic. We examined the health records of more than 14 million people aged ten and over who were registered with general practitioners across the UK. We looked at how many people first sought help from their general practitioner or a hospital A&E department. We found that during the UK's initial lockdown, the number of people seeking help with depression fell 43%, the number of anxiety disorders decreased by 48% and self-harm decreased by 38%.
But does this decline in help with finding mental illness and self-harm simply reflect the public's compliance with government news? One possible reason for the decline could be that the rate of mental illness and self-harm in the population was lower during this period. There is evidence to suggest that some young people experienced improvements in their mental health during the spring 2020 lockdown.
Most research shows, however, that this blocking had a negative effect on psychological stress. Additionally, some mental health charities reported an increase in people asking for help, showing that there is still a need for mental health and self-harm, but said people weren't looking for this out of clinical situations. It also suggests that the gap between the number of people requiring treatment for mental illness and self-harm and the number of people receiving treatment has widened significantly over this period.
We have seen a significant decrease in the number of people of working age (18 to 64 years old) and people in the most deprived communities seeking help with anxiety and depression. The reductions in the number of people seeking help with episodes of self-harm were greatest among people under the age of 45 and women. The pandemic has been shown to have a particularly negative impact on the mental health of these groups. Our results suggest that the groups of people most in need of mental health care are the least likely to receive help.
There could be a number of reasons for this. Research shows that the availability and quality of medical care in disadvantaged communities can often be lower. The pandemic may have continued to add to existing problems – which could partly explain the decline in seeking help in this group. In addition, the widening of existing gender inequalities caused by the pandemic could have impaired women's ability to seek support. For example, some extra childcare responsibilities on top of work can make up for it, making it more difficult to seek treatment or support.
Although general practitioners quickly got used to remote appointments during the pandemic and many mental health facilities in hospitals have diverted services away from the hospital emergency departments to ensure they are still accessible, our results show that people are still less during the lockdown Sought help. While some people may not have sought help for fear of contracting the virus, it is clear that public health news has played a major role in this decline in seeking help.
As the pandemic continues, the public health news should reinforce that help from general practitioners and mental health services is available in hospitals. Delays in treating mental illness and self-harm could mean people with more severe mental illnesses suffer when they get help – which it did after the spring 2020 lockdown. Providing immediate mental health support to people with mental illness or self-harm can reduce the risk of persistent mental health problems.
Our study showed that by September 2020, the number of people seeking help with mental illness and self-harm was broadly at expected levels. This is likely due to the lifting of restrictions and the reduction in virus rates, which means people were more willing to use NHS services. However, the UK faced further lockdowns in the fall and winter of 2020, putting even more pressure on the healthcare sector. It is currently unknown how these current restrictions will affect the number of people seeking help. However, based on the lessons learned from the initial lockdown, there is an urgent need to ensure that people have access to mental health care.
Individuals seeking mental health support can contact their primary care practitioner and schedule an emergency appointment or call 111 after hours. For immediate mental crises, call 999 or go to A&E. For more information on mental health care during the pandemic, please visit MIND.
Sarah Steeg, Presidential Research Fellow, University of Manchester
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Above: Many people's mental health deteriorated during the pandemic – but many did not seek support or treatment. Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock