The Hidden Pandemic

*Content warning: detailed discussion on mental health issues*

In the UK, 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in their life, and around 1 in 6 are suffering from a common mental health disorder in any given week [1]. Most people will have had or know someone that has had anxiety/depression, bipolar disorder or an eating disorder. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is predominantly affecting the population’s physical health, the mental health implications of both the disease and the measures taken to combat it appear to have been somewhat neglected in the UK and should be urgently addressed. Policymakers should immediately take steps to support those most at-risk, to ensure a second health crisis does not occur because of the first.

There is already a lot of literature on the prevalence and nature of different mental health conditions in the UK, such as section 1 of the Covid-19 and mental health article published recently by Scientists for Labour [2]. This article will instead focus on the effects of Covid-19 on the mental health of the general population and how we can best mitigate the risk of another deadly pandemic. As this is an issue which likely will affect you or people you know, I will attempt to be as logical and accurate as possible so as not to cause unnecessary distress. Literature on the affect of Covid-19 on mental health is naturally incomplete and research is ongoing, so this article is merely an incomplete summary. 

Even as the UK has one of the worst death rates in the world, the social distancing measures introduced on the 28thMarch have helped stop the spread of this virus and without them many more people would have died [3]. However, the combined lack of contact, increased health concerns and financial stress will have a negative impact on the nation’s mental health.

In the UK, 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in their life

The severity of such impacts is likely to depend both on the duration of the lockdown and social distancing, and the depth of the economic recession that follows it. Scientists at Kings College are conducting a COVID-19 psychiatric and neurological genetics study (given the acronym ‘COPING’) which looks at the UK specifically and is currently in the process of data collection. Once released this will provide a more comprehensive picture on the current situation.

An online study conducted by Torales, J. et al. [4] in Italy found that 37% of respondents reported symptoms of PTSD, 17.3% depression, 20.8% anxiety, 21.8% insomnia, and 22.9% high perceived stress. Young women had the highest chance of reporting mental health symptoms. Participants who had been furloughed or sacked had an increase in all negative outcomes except for PTSD. By contrast those who are working longer hours than normal (like key workers) have an increased risk of PTSD. 

As is often the case after suffering a bereavement losing a loved one to COVID-19 was associated with PTSD, depression, perceived stress, and insomnia. So, it is evident that there has been a short-term decrease in the mental health of the wider population. What this could lead to and what policy makers must now act to avoid is this decrease leading to is a longer term drop which results in greater demand on already severely overstretched mental health services. 

Immense pressure has been put on NHS staff and key workers

Prior to the pandemic, the mental health charity MIND found that 41% of NHS trusts had staffing levels below the minimum benchmark [5]. In short, much like with the lack of PPE before the coronavirus outbreak, we are chronically unprepared for this other pandemic. Urgent action must be taken by government now to prevent such a catastrophe. 

Researchers at the University of Oxford [2] have compiled a list of questions to put to the government and I believe it is imperative that we make similar demands of our elected officials.

  • What is the government’s assessment of the likely increase in the demand for mental health services post-lockdown because of the pandemic?
  • What steps is the government taking at the present time to prepare the NHS for such demands in advance?
  • Will the government be making any special accommodations for NHS staff and carers’ mental health, given the evidence that it will be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
  • Has the government made any preparations for supporting the mental health of the nation in the event of a second wave of the pandemic?

1) McManus, S. et al. Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. (2009)
2) I. Creed et al. “COVID-19 and Mental Health The next crisis?” Scientists for Labour. (2020)
3) Holmes, Emily A., et al. “Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science.” The Lancet Psychiatry. (2020)
4) Torales, J. et al. “The outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on global mental health.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry (2020): 0020764020915212.

The following links are support services for the topics raised in this article:

Mind – Coronavirus and your wellbeing

Young Minds – Anxiety about Coronavirus

Young Minds – Crisis Messenger

SANE – Support Forum

By Joe Baker

MSci Physics student at the University of Nottingham

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