Coronavirus: mental health

Published 14/05/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the stay at home measures on people’s mental health and wellbeing is a significant concern.

There are a wide range of contributory factors, including increased stress, isolation, disruption to usual routines, financial insecurity, relationship issues, abuse, and bereavement.

Those with existing mental health problems may be worried about reduced access to support. Mind Cymru report that one in five people have been unable to access mental health services during lockdown.

There are also concerns about the mental health impact on health, social care and other frontline staff. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists:

Healthcare staff working in the current pandemic are likely to face a range of stressors including workplace stress, home pressures, traumatic exposure, moral distress and the risks of moral injury. The currently unprecedented circumstances also come at a time when NHS staff are already stretched, services are often understaffed and when organisational morale may be far from ideal.

While there are suggestions that suicide rates will also rise, suicide prevention experts say this is not inevitable

Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy, and vulnerable groups. Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration. (Lancet Psychiatry, 21 April 2020)

The mental health impact of the pandemic is predicted to last much longer than the physical health impact, as discussed in this BMJ (British Medical Journal) article (5 May 2020).

Children and young people

The NSPCC has reported ‘unprecedented demand’ for its Childline service during the pandemic. An NSPCC briefing (17 April 2020) highlights the main concerns that children and young people have been talking to Childline counsellors about:

Young people use the word “trapped” to describe how they feel about being at home, particularly since strict social distancing measures were put in place. Not being able to go to school, visit family or friends or take part in activities outside of the family home is having a negative impact on their mental health.

Some young people tell us they are having suicidal thoughts and feelings and some talk about using self-harm to cope.

On 16 April 2020, the Welsh Government announced £1.25 million additional funding for school counselling services to support children who may be experiencing increased anxiety as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

With children and young people now having to rely more on sources of online mental health support, there may be concerns around their ability to access technology in the home and engage with online services. Privacy may also be an issue.

On 5 May 2020 the Children, Young People and Education Committee questioned the Minister for Health and Social Services about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental wellbeing, and what assurance he could give that this would be a priority for the Welsh Government. He responded:

… it is a real worry list for me about how we understand the impact on the mental health and well-being of children and young people, and to move forwards, that we don't end up with an entire generation of children and young people who grow up with a range of damage because we haven't thought about what that will look like. So, the mental health recovery plan will of course be of very real importance to me. In amongst all the other priorities I have, I'm certainly not going to allow the mental health and well-being of children and young people to be forgotten.

Given its focus on the emotional and mental health of children and young people during the Fifth Assembly, the Children, Young People and Education Committee will be keeping a close eye on this issue. Our previous article addresses the impact of the pandemic on children’s rights.

Measuring the impact

Third sector organisations are carrying out work to understand the impact of the pandemic on our mental health, including:

  • the Mental Health Foundation is leading a UK-wide longitudinal study to track changes in the population’s mental health in real time, and target issues as they emerge, and
  • a Mind Cymru survey is looking at the impact of coronavirus on people’s mental health and access to support.

It’s clear however, that further research will be needed. Responding to a question about the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health (5 May 2020), the Health Minister told the Children, Young People and Education Committee:

Part of the honest challenge, again, is that we don't fully understand the impact on the mental health and well-being of children but we do expect there will have been an impact. (…). Until we have more contact with families, we may not fully understand that, and that's a real point of concern for me.

In all of the unknowns within this, the impact on mental health and well-being is absolutely one of them, because we're looking at how we then develop not just a recovery plan for the economy but a recovery plan around mental health.

A position paper published in the Lancet Psychiatry (15 April 2020) states that mental health science research must be central to the international response to the pandemic. It highlights not only the potential impact on individual and population mental health, but also the possible effects of the disease itself on the brain function of some of those affected.

Welsh Government response

On 15 April 2020, Dr Andrew Goodall (Director General, Health and Social Services and NHS Wales Chief Executive) wrote to health boards setting out the Welsh Government’s expectations that mental health services should continue to provide “safe and sustainable responses” to individuals who need access to mental health support during this period.

On 6 May 2020 the Welsh Government published an NHS Wales COVID-19 operating framework (for quarter 1 of 2020/21), and an accompanying Essential health services document. This confirms that mental health services are categorised as an ‘essential service’, i.e. one which should be maintained at all times throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The document also highlights that a ‘mental health COVID-19 monitoring tool’ has been developed to provide assurance on the capacity of services to fulfil their key functions. Health boards are required to complete and return this on a weekly basis.

The Welsh Government has published the following information to support services during the pandemic:

On 16 April, the Welsh Government announced that a free mental health support service for doctors will be expanded to cover all frontline NHS Wales staff during the pandemic.

Bereavement services in Wales have received £72,000 additional funding from the Welsh Government to help them respond to an anticipated increase in demand over the coming months as a result of coronavirus.

Support and information resources

A number of organisations have published a range of information resources to help support people’s mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. These include:

On 6 May the National Assembly for Wales became the Welsh Parliament, to be commonly known as Senedd. As a result, references in this document reflect the change of name, referring to the institution as the ‘Assembly’ in a historic context (prior to 6 May) and ‘Senedd’ thereafter.

Article by Philippa Watkins, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.