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House of Lords Hansard
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Covid-19: Mental Health
01 July 2020
Volume 804

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health.

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My Lords, we have released tailored guidance to help people deal with their mental health on GOV.UK and the Every Mind Matters website. NHS mental health services have remained open for business, offering support using digital, telephone and face-to-face approaches as appropriate. We have provided £9.2 million of additional funding to charities to support adult and children’s mental health. We are working with the NHS, Public Health England and others to gather evidence and assess potential long-term impacts of Covid-19 as we plan for support for mental health through the recovery phase.

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I refer to my interests in the register and thank the Minister for that reply. However, as he will be aware, research on the impact of the pandemic already shows that demand for mental health and well-being services is increasing substantially. Will he therefore ensure that specific funding across government is available to groups who are particularly at risk at this time, including: those who have had the virus and been treated in hospital, who suffer from high rates of PTSD; people who have been bereaved in distressing circumstances; those living and working in care homes and in our hospitals; and children, who require immediate psychological support as they return to school?

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The noble Lord is entirely right to be focused on the potential increase in demand for mental health services, although it is an area where we have some reassurance that the explosion of mental health demand has not hit the heights that at one point we feared. None the less, we have ploughed money into mental health charities and have recruited 3,500 volunteers who are helping with the Check-in and Chat Plus process. We remain incredibly vigilant in this area, and I entirely support the focus on specific mental health issues which the noble Lord outlined.

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My Lords, in view of that response, what efforts have the Government made to both establish and address the mental health of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, which is always significantly more precarious than the average and which is now exacerbated, particularly in the case of families on the roadside with poor hygiene facilities, those subject to racial abuse—which has increased—and rough sleepers from the Roma community with poor English?

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The noble Baroness is entirely right to focus on the Roma community, which, like many communities who are outside the mainstream, is hard hit by the results of Covid. Many such families live near me in Wiltshire. I reassure her that local authorities have continued to mobilise both digital and face-to-face mental health services in an entirely exemplary way, and I pay tribute to their hard work in this area.

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My Lords, the Government are providing NHS staff with free access to online therapy and group counselling sessions, among other things, which is much needed and very welcome. Can the Minister say whether the same quality of care, recognition and access to mental health support is being given to parts of the social care sector such as nursing homes, care homes and home care workers, who have faced similar traumatic experiences to those of NHS staff?

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The right reverend Prelate is entirely right to be focused on the support offered to both NHS and social care staff. There is considerable potential trauma in this area, and those who have been on the front line are under more pressure than one could possibly imagine. We have put in place schemes specifically targeted at both NHS and social care staff, and I reassure the right reverend Prelate that there is parity between the two sectors.

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My Lords, the first UK study of neurological and psychological complications of Covid-19 was published last week. It found that 31% of patients developed an altered mental state arising from both neurological and psychiatric diagnoses. This is a relatively small cohort study, but the breadth and prevalence of the complications uncovered mean that larger studies are crucial to truly understand the scale of the challenge. With recovery, we have proven our capability to run outstanding trials at pace, so can the Minister please outline his plans for research into the acute and longer-term mental health effects of Covid?

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The noble Baroness is entirely right to emphasise the importance of longitudinal studies. The UK household longitudinal study data, which analyses the GHQ-12 scores, has been upgraded. We will continue to invest in that, and Public Health England has been tasked with monitoring the development of mental health issues across the country.

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My Lords, research shows that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on some of the most disadvantaged, particularly those from BAME communities. During this period, many mental health and community services have moved online. While that is an appropriate first response, charities are now expressing concern that it is not an effective response for many, including the elderly, those with learning disabilities and those with severe mental illnesses. Can the Minister say what urgent steps the Government are taking to restore effective treatment and care for all, including face-to-face services, with all necessary PPE and testing in place?

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My Lords, we are feeling our way in this area. There have been benefits from some of the moves online. People have been able to see more of their consultants, they have found that some of the content provided has been helpful, and the reach has gone up. However, I completely agree with the noble Baroness that it will not work for everyone. I pay tribute to mental health professionals who have maintained face-to-face contact during the epidemic, with all the threats associated, and we continue to look closely at how to fit appropriate technology and digital access to the right people and in the right format.

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My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on antenatal and perinatal mental health services, and what steps are they taking to ensure that expectant and new parents are able to access the support they might need in person, particularly given the nuanced nature of potentially accessing services for the first time?

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The area of antenatal and natal services has developed a huge amount of concern and, as my noble friend may remember, we adjusted the guidelines to give parents greater access to mother and child at an early stage. This area does concern us. However, it is a relief that, generally speaking, the disease has not hit pregnant women and early born children in the way that it has hit elderly people, and for that we are grateful.

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My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. As acknowledged by the Minister, the impact of nursing people with Covid-19 on the mental health of nurses is estimated to be considerable. A recent brief report from the University of Manchester into suicide by nurses identified a higher prevalence in female nurses than in women from other professions. It is vital that there is a dedicated support offer for the mental health and well-being of the NHS and social care workforce. Will the Minister ask Her Majesty’s Government to consider extending the current England-wide practitioner mental health service commissioned for doctors and dentists to include all nurses employed in the NHS, community and social care settings?

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My Lords, the confidential helpline for the health and well-being of NHS staff was launched on 8 April. That remains in place and has delivered important mental health support for NHS staff. I will take away the noble Baroness’s recommendation to extend it to a wider community.

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I return to the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Bradley. We know that around a third of schools currently do not provide school-based mental health support and that many young people struggling to cope will not meet the criteria of the NHS mental health services in their area. Will the Minister consider the request of Young Minds for the Government to provide ring-fenced funding to ensure that schools can bring in the extra support needed to help their children?

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I should be very glad to look at that request and would be grateful if the noble Baroness would forward it to me. The Young Minds movement is very important. I would say that young people, particularly girls, have been a focus of mental health issues. That has come out in the figures and it is a situation that concerns us.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.