The North in Numbers – Mental health: The hidden pandemic


There’s been a surge in mental health issues across the UK in the wake of the pandemic, with unprecedented demand and huge backlogs putting a massive strain on services.

Dan McLaughlin, 27, is one of the many people across the country who have struggled with their mental health over the last two years.

Speaking to Annie Gouk on the latest episode of The North in Numbers, he said: “The pandemic definitely worsened my symptoms, to the extent that I was hospitalized on a mental health ward.

“It’s something that I thought would never happen. But it happened to a great deal of people over the pandemic.

“We had two pandemics – the coronavirus pandemic and the mental health pandemic. I think the mental health pandemic is going to last far beyond Covid-19.”

Listen to the podcast episode in full here:

In the first year of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, the number of referrals for specialist NHS mental health care reached a record high in England by the end of 2021.

There were 4.3 million referrals for conditions such as anxiety and depression last year – up from around 3.8 million referrals the previous two years.

Those working in the mental health sector have long been warning about a wave of mental ill health as a result of coronavirus.

Stewart Lucas, of national mental health charity Mind, said: “We are now seeing that wave both in terms of people who are already ill, with an increase in the severity of conditions, and an increase in specific conditions.

“We are in the middle of a mental health arises at the present moment.”



Stewart Lucas

And while people of all ages have seen their mental health affected, the data suggests that children and young people are suffering even more than adults.

Between April and September last year, there was an 81% increase in referrals for children and adolescent mental health services compared with the same period in 2019.

In comparison, there was only an 11% increase in referrals for adult mental health services over the same period.

James Emmett is the regional clinical lead for the North of England at Place2Be – a children’s mental health charity working with pupils, families and staff in UK schools.

He said: “The very basic needs of children have been under threat, and on top of that they’ve been in and out of school.

“All the places we’ve told children are safe haven’t been safe, and all the people who they would go to for help have been potential threats, carrying this invisible enemy.

“That’s a tough place for children to be in, and it’s almost definitely going to affect many, many children’s mental health.”

The rise in demand for children’s mental health services has been most notable in the soaring need for eating disorder treatment in particular.

Across England, nearly 12,600 young people were treated for eating disorders in 2021. That was up by 29% compared to 2020 and the highest number in five years.

Meanwhile, the number of children and young people attending emergency departments primarily for an eating disorder doubled from 107 in October 2019 to 214 in October 2021.

Amy (not her real name) is 17 years old. The numerous lockdowns had a particularly strong impact on her mental health and her battle with anorexia.

She said: “I had been struggling with food so I’d lost a bit of weight, and I’d been overtraining and things, but it wasn’t until I got put into lockdown that it started to come to the surface.

“I had a lot more time on my hands, so I was training six hours a day and had a lot more time to plan and prep my food.

“As well as physically, mentally it took a toll on me. I couldn’t concentrate on things – when I was training it got to the point where I couldn’t even count how many reps I was doing.

“Mealtimes used to be a fun thing as a family, but they turned into hell. A Sunday dinner would take me an hour to get through – that was the highlight of our week during lockdown, but then everyone started to dread it.”

The rise in eating disorders among young people during the pandemic is a huge concern, as the consequences can be devastating.

Jo Whitfield, spokesperson for the national eating disorder charity Beat, said: “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses.

“They unfortunately have high mortality rates, with anorexia tragically having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and one in six people with binge eating disorder trying to end their life.

“Eating disorders can steal childhood and devastate relationships, and they can pull families apart, but it’s really important to remember that with the right treatment – early treatment – and support, recovery is absolutely possible.”



Jo Whitfield

Amy was on the brink of being hospitalized with anorexia, but is now receiving treatment after her mum sought help just in time from her nearby community eating disorders service, run by Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

However, unfortunately not everyone is lucky enough to get treatment so quickly. The latest figures showed that waiting times have been deteriorating since the start of the pandemic.

Between October and December last year, only 59% of urgent eating disorder cases started treatment within the target of one week – the lowest proportion seen in the last five years.

As of December, more than 200 urgent cases and over 1,900 routine cases were still waiting for treatment, which is the highest number on record.

And it’s not just eating disorder services that have been affected – as of December 2021 an estimated 1.4 million people were still waiting for any type of mental health treatment.

Meanwhile, one in five children and young people waited more than 12 weeks for a follow-up appointment with mental health services between April 2020 and March 2021.

Mr Lucas said: “Across the board, we are seeing massive waiting lists. And that’s because more people are reaching out for help, concurrently with a workforce crisis.

“The workforce is not there, and that’s been caused by a number of issues – by the pandemic, by Brexit, by the fact that we already had a decreasing workforce before this all happened. The bottom line is we don’t have the people to fill the jobs.”

The Government said its NHS Mental Health Implementation Plan sets out the need for the mental health workforce to grow by more than 27,000 by April 2024.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “It is vital that everyone can get the right support when they need it, and we are delivering the fastest expansion in mental health services in NHS history, backed by an additional £2.3billion a year by 2023-24. This will benefit hundreds of thousands more people.”

He added that the Government had spent an extra £500million to help those whose mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, as well as establishing 24/7 urgent helplines at all NHS mental health providers.

The North in Numbers is a Laudable production for Reach, and it is presented by Annie Gouk and produced by Mark Magill.

It is available on all major podcasting platforms, including Apple and Spotify. Get in touch via [email protected]




www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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