By Sharon Ross

The impact of the pandemic on mental health

Quite rightly the impact of the pandemic on mental health has received much attention. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that in the run-up to the first lockdown, roughly 10% of people showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression, compared with 19% in June 2020[1]. So, the question arises – What can be done to ease the mental health crisis going forward?

From reading the news articles on the issue you would have thought it was quite simple – those suffering with mental health issues should use simple strategies such as meditation, exercise, journaling and talking to friends.  In addition, the government should put more money into mental health services.  If those suffering carry out these simple strategies and the government play their part, then a mental health pandemic can be averted.

Real change takes time

However, I would argue that mental health issues are, by their nature, complex and people need to take time to heal. It’s a process and sometimes just hanging in there is all that matters. 

In a world where knowledge is instantly at our finger-tips, TV is ‘on-demand’ and everything from revamping your house to making more income is solved in five easy steps, it does seem difficult for us to recognise that there is no quick fix solution to some problems. In my experience even starting to begin a journey of mental health recovery takes time and it’s a process that can be never ending.  As the sayings go ‘time heals’ and ‘real change takes time’. Healing from a mental health illness is a slow journey because processing what is happening to you, coming to terms with a diagnosis or even simply understanding why you are depressed just takes time.  There is no quick way.

Meditation, exercise, journaling and seeing friends can help, but seeing a simple list of ideas in an article or video can be pressuring.  It can make you feel that you are not trying hard enough because you have tried everything and failed.  Or that because you don’t have enough energy to try you are never going to get better. But I think just acknowledging that there is no quick fix is important.

Investment in mental health services

I am not saying that efforts shouldn’t be made to make recovery quicker.  The government needs to invest more in mental health services.   Although waiting times for an initial assessment are good (87% of people are seen in less than six weeks after referral)[2], the time between initial assessment and second appointment are high.  The second appointment is when therapy starts so this gap is significant.  A recent study by the Royal College of Psychiatrist found that one in four people with mental health problems has to wait at least three months on this so-called ‘hidden waiting list’, and some do not get help for four years[3].  However, even when people do get seen it doesn’t mean that they automatically get better.  Indeed, the latest NHS IAPT annual statistics (short-term therapeutic intervention) it was found that only 51% of people who receive this therapy moved to recovery[4].  That doesn’t mean that those that don’t ‘recover’ can’t be helped, it’s just that that particular way of helping hasn’t worked for them. 

In addition to investing more into mental health services more needs to be invested into mental health research.   The brain is a complex beast - not all therapeutic approaches, therapists and medications are a ‘good fit’ for each patient.  We need to understand more about why that is and see if we can get the best intervention to the right patient quicker.  Finally, to make recovery quicker, mental health charities need more funding.  On a list of the top 50 charities by income in the UK there is not one charity dedicated to mental health issues[5].  Local Minds such as Hertfordshire Mind Network, give long-term integrated support including talking therapies and peer support, to carry out their important work and they, like many more mental health charities need even more resources, especially at this time.

In conclusion

However even if services and research improved, I believe that there will never be a fast-track solution to mental health issues.  By their nature mental health problems need time to resolve.  Time to process.  Time to understand.  And well, just time.  It’s better to be realistic, take the foot off the pedal, breathe and acknowledge that the road ahead is long.  Things will get better but it will take time.