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The pandemic-induced mental health crisis needs more attention

A recent report suggests we’re facing ‘the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war,’ and a potential ‘tsunami’ of psychological problems, with Gen Z among the worst affected.

It’s no secret that the impact of the pandemic – global devastation, millions of deaths, economic strife, and unprecedented curbs on social interaction – has already had a significant effect on people’s mental health.

Of those currently experiencing anxiety and depression related to Covid-19, over half of them are Gen Z, most likely because young people are especially vulnerable to psychological distress and often have an intense need to socialise during adolescence.

According to a study conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 63% of 18 to 24-year-olds in the US are suffering as a direct result of the Coronavirus crisis, with a quarter of young adults resorting to increased substance use to cope, and the same number (25%) stating they’d considered suicide during the past month.

Dr Sarah Lipson, Assistant Professor at the School of Public Health in Boston, correctly attributes this to a ‘perfect storm’ of job losses, income uncertainty, isolation, absence of education, and the general atmosphere of unease and loss, with students of colour taking the biggest hit.

‘For the people between the ages of 21 and 25, this is a time of expansion in their life, with new connections and new things,’ she says. ‘That is all being halted. I think this is a hard time for parts of life to stand still when there is normally just this fast-paced developmental time where so much is happening socially and professionally.’

These harrowing statistics have raised alarm bells for experts, who are arguing that amid ‘the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war,’ the potential ‘tsunami’ of psychological problems we risk facing is in need of a great deal more attention, that it should be treated as seriously as containing the outbreak.

But how did the situation get so out of control?

For one, very understandable, reason: fear of hospitals. In a survey, psychiatrists found that, while there’s been an obvious rise (43%) in emergency cases since last March (and despite mental health services remaining open), there’s been a noticeable drop (45%) in routine appointments.

This is expected to amount in a huge backlog once we eventually return to normality and it could take years to recover.

‘In old-age psychiatry our patients appear to have evaporated, I think people are too fearful to seek help,’ explains one of the 1,300 surveyed doctors from around the UK. ‘Many of our patients have developed mental disorders because of the Coronavirus disruption but are reluctant to get the help they need as they don’t consider themselves a priority.’

To put this into perspective, in an average month, the NHS talking therapies service will receive about 150,000 referrals for treatment of common mental health problems, a figure that dropped to as low as 60,000 in April 2020.

Now, we’re looking at as many as 10 million people worldwide – including 1.5 million children – needing new or additional support. Numbers which may well rise as the full impact becomes clear on BAME communities, care homes, and people with disabilities.

This highlights the requirement for a plan that ensures anyone who’s developed a mental illness or has seen their existing condition exacerbated since the pandemic began, has swift access to effective assistance in the years ahead.

‘You’ve got to fund the long-term consequences,’ says Lipson. ‘It doesn’t stop when the virus is under control and there are fewer people in hospital.’

To manage this imminent wave of demand Lipson stresses the importance of backing the voluntary sector, providing information on how to handle the overwhelming feeling of dealing with these challenges alone, and ultimately encourage governments to protect people from the economic consequences of the Coronavirus crisis.

If you’re a young person suffering with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health problems as a result of lockdown and the pandemic, you can find support and resources at Samaritans, Mind, and Young Minds (among others).

In the meantime, try to remember that we are living through a very strange time indeed, you’re not alone, and that it’s certainly okay not to be okay.