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16 May 2020

SANE demands urgent action to avoid looming mental health crisis

SANE, the national mental health charity, is today calling for immediate action to tackle the worsening shortage of mental health staff and psychiatric beds, both of which are needed to meet the escalating need for support due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Effects of Lockdown and Overstretched Services Risk a ‘Mental Illness Time Bomb’

New analysis by SANE reveals a worrying picture of the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on people’s mental health, with almost one third of callers to our helpline saying they are actively suicidal.

We are concerned that the withdrawal and reduction of mental health provision due to the pandemic, coupled with a reluctance to use crisis or other medical services, leaves people with nowhere to go, and without any support. We anticipate that this will lead to more untreated and more severe levels of mental illness in the months to come.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, there has been a significant increase in the number of people contacting SANE for help, with 85% new to our service. While 80% of callers were experiencing loneliness and isolation, almost a third (30%) said they felt actively suicidal.

The priorities for mental healthcare during the pandemic were recently laid out by Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England. The second phase of the NHS response includes plans to ensure patients are contacted and supported, particularly following discharge from inpatient services, and that children and young people continue to have access to mental health services.

But SANE believes these measures need to go much further. Based on the experience of people contacting us, we call additionally for:

  • Crisis beds to be made available in each mental health trust area, to prevent patients being denied inpatient care or having to travel long distances for a hospital place
  • Adequate staffing of inpatient wards and forensic units, to prevent patients’ mental health deteriorating due to lack of access to activities and exercise
  • Welfare checks to be made to those at risk (preferably by home visit, or by phone), to prevent patients self-harming, attempting suicide or becoming critically unwell.

This will require a psychiatric workforce in sufficient numbers. Given the existing shortages of specialist nurses and doctors, we believe the NHS should seriously consider supplementing its existing staff with people who have responded to the Government’s call for volunteers, some of whom may already have a degree of relevant experience. These volunteers could work under the supervision of approved mental health staff, whose time would be freed up to focus on more urgent cases.

Marjorie Wallace, Founder and Chief Executive of SANE, said: “We are sitting on a time bomb of mental illness, as people withunderlying psychiatric conditions are just as much at risk as those with physical health problems.

“We know that loneliness is a killer and can hasten premature death by as much as 42%. SANE’s survey shows the effects of prolonged isolation, with rising levels of anxiety, distress and panic leading to people with more suicidal intentions and self-harm.”

“Just as those with chest pains or a worrying lump may not be using NHS services, our study shows people with mental illness feel there is no help, are guilty about using NHS time, or are afraid of catching the virus.

“We know untreated mental illness can lead to mental health crisis, and the Government should be increasing staff and beds in preparation.”

Download the SANE report on lockdown (PDF, 519 KB)

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