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Mental health services have been pivotal to the national emergency response

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s National Mental Health Director and a registered mental health nurse for 34 years

Our lives have changed significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, our everyday ‘normal’ and routines shifted dramatically. Children and young people entered the virtual classroom and working from home became the norm for many. The pressure on our fantastic front-line NHS staff has been like nothing we have ever known and unfortunately we have lost loved ones to the virus and faced challenges we didn’t know existed over a year ago. 


The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported almost one in five adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic and almost one in eight developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms. They also found a marked increase in anxiety at the beginning of lockdown with almost half of people reporting high anxiety.

 

In this difficult context, my priority has been to ensure that the NHS is still here to provide care and treatment to support the mental health of the nation. Our mental health services were pivotal to the national emergency response, going above and beyond to stay open and keep patients and staff safe during a time of unprecedented uncertainty, distress and interruption to daily life.

 

In a matter of months, we adapted talking therapies for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety that could be delivered remotely when needed, with 97% of sessions held over the telephone or online in September 2020 compared to 36% in February. We have also increased access to these services with almost 1.17 million people starting talking therapy treatment in 2019/20. Last November we launched our first campaign as part of the wider NHS Help Us Help You series to ensure people knew how to seek help, including self-referring online in England.


We also progressed the rapid roll-out of 24/7 all-age mental health crisis lines across the country. These lines offer free and timely support to those who need it, with access to mental health professionals without having to attend A&E. They were originally planned to go live by 2023/24 but thanks to the fantastic work of our teams and the support of the voluntary and community sector (VCS), we achieved this two years ahead of schedule. Around 1.6 million calls were received between April and November 2020 which demonstrates the necessity of these lines during the pandemic.


We expect Covid -19 will have a long-term impact on people’s mental health and while we continue to work to understand future needs, early estimates point to increased prevalence of mental health problems across all age groups. The NHS already has a world-leading plan to transform mental health services across the country, and the additional £500 million investment in mental health from the Government, announced last month, will be instrumental in achieving some of our commitments faster.

Almost one in five adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression during the pandemic and almost one in eight developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms. There was a marked increase in anxiety at the beginning of lockdown with almost half of people reporting high anxiety

 

The Office For National Statistics

The mental health of our children and young people is a top priority of our plan. The NHS has launched new Mental Health Support Teams in schools and we will increase their number from 59 in March 2020 to around 400 by April 2023. This means we’ll hit our 2023 coverage target a year earlier than planned. We will also support services to see an additional 186,500 children and young people aged 0-25 in 2021/22, above the original plan of 164,000. In addition we will accelerate the roll-out of comprehensive support offers for young adults, including students, with local systems receiving additional funding to partner with VCS organisations to ensure more accessibility for services.


Crucially, our work on advancing health equalities could not be more important. Covid-19 highlighted the disparities still existing within our system and we are prioritising working closely with communities experiencing differential outcomes and experiences as part of our efforts to reduce inequalities. Our ongoing development of the ‘Patient and Carers Race Equality Framework’ will support improvements in experiences of care for all in mental health services and more information can be found in our ‘Advancing Mental Health Equalities Strategy’.


This is just one part of our ambitious Long Term Plan for mental health. The pandemic has changed the way we work – but it hasn’t impacted our ambitions. The NHS is here for mental health – and we still stand steadfast in our commitment to continue to improve mental health care, including access and quality, across the country.


Finally, but significantly, we also need to acknowledge the role that our families, communities, friends, schools and others have had to play during this difficult time. We have seen the true impact human connection, love and support can have in getting through this pandemic whether that be a simple phone-call from a loved one checking in or the act of kindness from a stranger. I have also heard many people talk about the positives they have taken from these challenging times which is a cause for optimism and hope. If a kinder society is one of the outcomes from the pandemic, then this will be welcome.