Two Years On: The Shadow Pandemic of Mental Health Decline

Two years after the UK went into lockdown, IPPO held a day-long series of sessions on March 24, 2022 to examine what lessons we must learn for future policymaking. The video of our panel discussion on Population Mental Health is below, with further reflections from professor Muiris MacCarthaigh, IPPO’s Northern Irish engagement lead at Queen’s University Belfast.

Full list of speakers*

The effect of the pandemic on the population’s mental health has come to be known as the ‘shadow pandemic’.

It has been well established that the ongoing disruption of the pandemic has increased the wellbeing and mental health risk of whole populations, and as COVID-19 stressors continue to contribute to public anxiety, the consequences to mental health remain a global health priority.

The panel discussed how the pandemic has contributed to the prevalence of many mental health conditions, including depression, as well as exacerbating them for pre-existing sufferers.

Treatment of these conditions has been affected as with no access to external support, many people with mental health conditions have had to self-medicate or suffer deterioration in their condition.

The data on the impact of the pandemic on people with anxiety and depression is stark and identifies a significant decrease in the mental and physical health of people in these groups. And while it was right that support was increased for this group to prevent further deterioration, support/provision for other mental health conditions have been adversely affected and in some cases totally withdrawn for people with other mental health wellbeing needs.

Service user data identifies that people with other mental health conditions such as bipolarity or schizophrenia have also experienced worsening of these conditions.

Research concerning the mental health effects across different social cohorts, including by characteristics as age and ethnicity is ongoing. The panel heard that at the younger age levels, children’s mental health services in the UK have reported a 3-4 fold increase in people accessing support services.

Funding has been made available to schools to support the mental health needs of children returning to schools, but these resources are not available for the clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) children still left at home or the children of CEV people. And in general, for school-going children the focus has been on ventilation-related issues to ensure physical health rather than the mental health supports.

Particular problems have arisen in assessing needs amongst older people and particularly those with lesser degrees of cognitive ability which can reduce ability to articulate need. Community support services for those with dementia were closed during the pandemic and many have not re-opened. Gathering meaningful data about the experiences of this group of older people is therefore difficult and there is also no data from people in care homes, including on the impact of isolation restrictions on this group.

Location has also been an important factor in determining both the prevalence of mental health illnesses and the ready availability of supports to address them. With higher densities, urban areas tend to report higher rates of illness and therefore more pronounced impacts of the pandemic.

What have we learned?

The main silver lining from the pandemic has been the increasing availability of access to online support for medical conditions including mental health services such as counselling. This has also opened up these services to those previously unable to access them. In this respect, the pandemic has accelerated moves to greater availability of online support for population mental health, and new research endeavours could usefully examine their effects and scalability.

As with many other aspects of social policy, the scarring effects of Covid-19 in respect of mental health will be with us for some time, and as the pandemic is far from over there is a need to invest in public health supports to address these effects.

How best to roll out services for the different age cohorts will require joined-up approaches involving not just national level agencies and departments, but also devolved governments and local authorities right down to school level.

* Speakers included Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Northern Ireland Mental Health Champion, Karen Wetherall, Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University and Eleanor Williams, Executive Director at Victorian Department of Health.

The session was chaired by Ann Watt, Director of Pivotal Public Policy Forum, Northern Ireland.

Stay informed

The IPPO review team are conducting a systematic review under the guidance of a multi-disciplinary advisory group. If you would like to stay informed as the review progresses, please contact the head of the IPPO review team, Kelly Dickson, at k.dickson@ucl.ac.uk