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Covid-19: Mental Health

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report The mental health effects of the first two months of lockdown and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on 10 June; and what steps they plan to take in response.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important issue, and I am grateful to the IFS for this thoughtful report. It is too early to know for certain the mental health consequences of Covid, but we are deeply concerned about those who suffer from isolation, young people, those who have fears of economic uncertainty, and those with existing mental health vulnerabilities. I give thanks to mental health professionals, who have worked hard during the epidemic, despite difficult circumstances.

My Lords, last week’s report by the IFS reveals how Covid-19 and the lockdown has had a major negative impact on mental health across the population, with women and young people particularly badly hit. Pre-existing inequalities in mental health have widened yet further. The report states that the scale of deterioration in mental health is of a magnitude unlike anything seen in recent years. What immediate steps are the Government taking to prevent this looming mental health crisis turning into an epidemic in its own right?

My Lords, the report is extremely helpful and throws a spotlight on an issue that we are deeply concerned about. Immediate help includes a £4.2 million support fund for mental health charities, and a £5 million fund for Mind, specifically to support charities dealing with Covid-related mental health issues. We will continue to invest in mental health in the long term, to support this important area.

My Lords, four in 10 pupils are not in regular touch with their teachers, there is a sharp educational divide between the rich and the poor, one in eight children and young people already has diagnosable mental health conditions, and the IFS research now reveals that those groups with the poorest mental health pre-crisis will see the largest deterioration. Does the Minister agree that the Government should put the same amount of resource, energy and imagination that they put into the development of the Nightingale hospitals, for example, into getting our children and young people back to school? Will the Minister commit to the YoungMinds five-point plan, which includes additional support for young people’s mental health as we move out of the pandemic, to meet rising demand, including recommitting to the measures outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan, in full, and funding additional early intervention services?

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raises an important point on the mental health of young people. A primary concern is the effect that the epidemic has on young people, at a delicate stage of their development. However, the return to schools is a very delicate matter. It requires the confidence of both parents and young people. We do not want to create further distress or concern. Therefore, we are taking steps in a thoughtful and measured fashion, to ensure that both pupils and parents are confident about the journey back to school.

My Lords, research led by Louisa Codjoe at King’s College London on tackling mental health inequalities found that BAME people are less likely to contact their GP about their mental health, to be prescribed anti-depressants or to be referred to a specialist mental health service. Any failures by the professional health services lead to fear and mistrust among the community, perpetuating a cycle of poor access. How do the Government plan to prioritise access for BAME communities and training for GPs to overcome these barriers?

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is entirely right to raise the issue of attendance. One of the greatest concerns during the epidemic is the declining attendance at mental health services, at primary care level and in hospitals. We are working hard on that. Last week, we launched the first aid kit for psychological first-aiders. Public Health England has launched this important resource, and it is indicative of the kinds of measures we are putting in place to address the inequalities of which the noble Baroness speaks.

My Lords, although it is strange to describe people who are, not surprisingly, worried about the current situation as suffering mental health problems, we should be concerned that so many young people are worried and stressed at present. Will my noble friend reassure any young people who have exaggerated fears of Covid-19 that they are more likely to be killed by lightning? I expect that many more young people have justified worries about the threat to their education and future job prospects. Will he abandon the physical distancing rule in schools and colleges, where it is unnecessary, and cut it to one metre elsewhere to enable the economy to recover?

My noble friend is entirely right that the fears described as mental health issues are about not only Covid itself but the economic and social consequences. The impact on mental health of the financial crisis 10 years ago was profound, and largely driven by fears of economic hardship. That is paramount. Reducing the distancing is not currently government policy, but we have that under review and news is expected.

My Lords, the CQC reports that deaths of patients detained under the Mental Health Act have doubled in one year, to 122; 56 of these patients died with either confirmed or suspected Covid-19. In the same period, we have also seen the increased use of restraints and seclusion within secure units. What plans do the Government have to address and help reduce inequalities, to prevent further tragic deaths? What steps have they taken to review these questionable restraint and seclusion practices in psychiatric hospitals?

My Lords, the investment we are making in mental health is profound. Our commitment is to £2.3 billion of extra funding by 2023-24. This is the sort of money necessary to provide the resources that will lead to a kinder, gentler type of mental health provision. I hope it will address the issues that the noble Baroness raises.

Has the Minister made any assessment of the effect on women of the ending of the self-employment income support scheme, since the inequalities report says that women still earn less, save less and are overrepresented in low-income insecure self-employment, notably in hospitality and leisure?

The noble Lord is entirely right that the burden on women during an epidemic such as Covid is probably more profound in some instances than on men. Women carry a huge amount of the domestic burden and of the financial concerns for the family. The IFS report puts a spotlight on the huge pressures placed on women. That will be a focus for our study and work.

My Lords, the Minister said that young people were the Government’s primary concern, but the Government’s waiting times and standards guidance of 2015 said that by 1 April 2016 more than 50% of young people would be treated within two weeks of referral. NHS England’s statistics for 2019 said that only 15% were receiving treatment within zero to four weeks and a shocking 25% were still waiting after 12 months. If this is the record before the crisis, what faith will there be in the Government’s addressing the problem after the crisis? Will the Minister apologise for this record of letting so many vulnerable young people down?

My Lords, supporting children and young people’s mental health during and after the pandemic is absolutely a priority. Mental health providers are offering support using digital and remote approaches to continue assessment and treatment during social distancing measures. This is part of the wide range of support that we are providing. The noble Lord is entirely right that this area requires a huge amount of investment; we have committed to making that necessary investment.

My Lords, the Covid pandemic has often been referred to as the invisible enemy. That is all too often true of mental health issues as well. Is the Minister aware that the campaign group Beyond Tomorrow has estimated that 83% of young people have said that the coronavirus pandemic has made their mental health worse? Will he guarantee that all young people and families who need immediate mental health support can get it to prevent the pandemic having long-term consequences for young people’s mental health?

The noble Lord is entirely right to focus on the impact of the pandemic on young people. It is not yet clear how that mental health impact will take effect. The natural concern is that it will be long standing. One thinks back to the major economic shocks of the past, which often led to long-term mental health issues for those who found economic insecurity. The struggle to find jobs left them with damaged confidence and concerns about the future. With that in mind, we are very much focused on addressing young people’s mental health and the impact of the epidemic.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for that Question has now elapsed. That also concludes the hybrid proceedings on Oral Questions.

Sitting suspended.