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The number of young people needing mental health support has doubled in the two years since the UK went into lockdown, with experts warning the pandemic has created a national mental health crisis.
Lockdown was first announced by Boris Johnson on March 23. It legally came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on March 26. Northern Ireland followed on March 28.
Two years on, and while rules and regulations confining us to self isolation may have been left behind - many have been left to pick up the pieces of their shattered mental health.
Charity Young Minds says there are 374,000 under 18s on the official waiting list for NHS mental health care - a rise of 134 percent on the same period in 2020 (81,170) and up by 96 percent compared to 2019.
Head of external affairs at YoungMinds, Olly Parker, said: "The impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health cannot be overstated."
Ben*, a 22-year-old graduate who has autism, didn't feel like he needed counselling at the start of the pandemic because he 'thought it would be over before [he] knew it'. However, as time went on, he found himself getting stressed and 'quite bad mentally' because of being trapped indoors and a lack of usual routine.
"It was so hard to find help, because everyone was affected by it in their own way," he says.
"It was difficult to reach out to friends, because this affected everyone. We all knew someone who was at risk of the virus, or who had uni ruined, or who lost someone to Covid. It was quite common, unfortunately.
"The time I realised I needed to speak to someone about my mental health was when my grandma passed away from Covid at the beginning of 2021. But it was impossible to find a counsellor because demand was so high. So many people were going through so much in the pandemic; losing loved ones, losing their business, not being able to spend time with loved ones who didn’t have much time left."
Around 374,000 under 18-year-olds are on the official waiting list for NHS mental health care. That’s the equivalent of four full Wembley stadiums.— YoungMinds (@YoungMindsUK) March 10, 2022
Heads of the NHS Confederation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists say more than eight million people were unable to even get on a waiting list for mental health support, or join the 1.6 million who are still holding out for specialised treatment.
Even patients who suffering with recognised mental health issues such as self-harm, eating disorders or at risk of suicide are being 'bounc[ed] back' by specialist mental health services.
As a result, doctors have warned that many patients will likely die.
Mental health reminder. We are still in a pandemic and our hospitals are overwhelmed. I found out tonight one of our students had to wait 8 hours,for a bed, while in an emergency mental health state. Others have been turned away cause they are “fine” right now.— Amy She / Her (@mormonmombutnot) March 17, 2022
The pressure is now on the UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid to form a 'comprehensive plan' to address the crisis. But the backlog is growing each day.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "We are moving towards a new phase of needing to ‘live with’ coronavirus but for a worrying number of people, the virus is leaving a growing legacy of poor mental health that services are not equipped to deal with adequately at present.
"With projections showing that 10 million people in England, including 1.5 million children and teenagers, will need new or additional support for their mental health over the next three to five years it is no wonder that health leaders have dubbed this the second pandemic.
"A national crisis of this scale deserves targeted and sustained attention from the government in the same way we have seen with the elective care backlog."
Due to a lack of counselling services, Ben was forced to look elsewhere, ringing mental health support services such as CALM and Mind.
"I spoke to Bereavement," he said. "The problem is whenever I tried to call there was always someone else calling. It was so hard to get someone to talk to.".
What change/ idea do you think would have the largest positive impact on young people's mental health in the UK?— YoungMinds (@YoungMindsUK) March 18, 2022
We'll start: Providing early mental health support in every local area, where young people can drop in without needing an appointment.
While Ben found CALM 'useful', it wasn't the same as having a counsellor 'who you have a bond with' - especially when his autism can make it difficult for him to 'understand or read emotional cues'.
"As someone who’s had counselling in the past and has worked with teaching assistants, you kind of develop a bit of a bond with that person where you can trust them. Whereas with mental health helplines, it’s just anonymous people on the phones. You don’t even know their names, and they don’t know who they’re talking to," he said.
President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Adrian James, wants a full-scale redress of 'neglected' mental health provision.
"We urgently need a fully-funded mental health recovery plan, backed by a long-term workforce plan, to ensure everyone with a mental illness can get the help they need when they need it," he said.
"Millions of children, young people and adults are seeking help from mental health services that are overstretched and under-resourced. The situation is critical. The government cannot afford to neglect mental health recovery any longer."
Referrals for specialist mental health care have reached a record high in England. @rcpsych says the country is coming to terms with ‘the biggest hit to its mental health in generations’ and is calling for action from the Government. We stand with @rcpsych.— YoungMinds (@YoungMindsUK) March 16, 2022
Since last year, the prevalence of eating disorders in children and teenagers in the UK has risen by 72% and since the beginning of the pandemic, emergency referrals for under-18s have increased by 52%.
The pandemic has also led to a 25% rise in depression and anxiety worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.
WHO noted how the pandemic has 'affected the mental health of young people and that they are disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviours'.
The director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated: "The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health."
The new @WHO report is a wake-up call to all countries to step up #mentalhealth services, support, and investment. @DrTedros: “The information we have now about the impact of #COVID19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg.”⬇️https://t.co/TcOlGQY8HE— Mental Health Europe (@MHESME) March 9, 2022
The responsibility to try and help mentally unwell young people has now fallen on GPs who often have no specific training in this specialised area.
Ben noted his reluctance to talk to GPs about his mental wellbeing, worried he would just get 'prescribed pills and medication'.
Over the course of the pandemic, Ben lost both his grandma and his aunt, as well as struggling with the move to online learning at university and his own previous mental health struggles.
"I felt a lot of sadness, hopelessness, anger," he said. "I just wanted to throw in the towel and give up. I'm anxious it will happen again.
"I sacrificed my 21st birthday, my graduation, my grandma died from covid and my aunt had to spend her last Christmas alone. I still have anxiety to this day.
"I think the government have been very focused on the NHS not being overwhelmed," he said. "But I do feel like the lockdowns have had a bad effect on people’s mental health and that should have started to have been tackled before. Young people particularly have been very overlooked in this crisis."
*Some names have been changed for the purpose of the article.
If you're experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They're open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you're not comfortable talking on the phone
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677
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