Mental health funds must double in face of post-Covid 'tsunami'

Doctors working on the frontline of mental health services say a doubling of funding is needed to deal with the “tsunami” that will follow the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mental health funds must double in face of post-Covid 'tsunami'
Frontline workers such as medics have faced additional stress during lockdown
Frontline workers such as medics have faced additional stress during lockdown

Doctors working on the frontline of mental health services say a doubling of funding is needed to deal with the “tsunami” that will follow the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the Government moves to publish a new ‘refreshed’ mental health strategy next week, consultants working on the frontline confirmed an increase in the numbers of people presenting with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and other illnesses.

The impact of Covid-19 on healthcare and frontline workers, including gardaí, the impact of lockdown restrictions on daily routines, managing loss and grief during the lockdown, and the impact of the pandemic on the economy, jobs and businesses, are already taking their toll on the mental health of young and old, an online press conference held by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland on Monday heard.

UCD professor Fiona McNicholas, who works in paediatric services, said the mental health impact of Covid-19 will lead to a “tsunami” or surge in people presenting with mental health illness.

“We are going to see a surge. We’re not sure when because we’re only dealing with this for three months,”  said Prof McNicholas, adding that a surge has occurred over one to two years post-pandemic in other countries.

Research has shown that pandemics can cause post-traumatic stress disorders in 5%-7% of the population and among 15% of healthcare staff, she said.

Prof McNicholas said more children and teenagers were presenting.

“What has surprised us is the huge range of problems," she said. "We wouldn’t have expected it until we saw it”.

Some children and teens were presenting with psychosis and delusions involving the virus while some young people with autism were presenting in “acute distressed states” because of the impact of the lockdown on their routine.

Professor McNicholas also gave examples where the lockdown had interfered with routines and triggered anorexia and over exercising among some young people.

John Lyne, who works in adult services, said an increase in anxiety, depression and self-harm was evident among adults.

“Some people have coped well and others have not," said Dr Lyne. "We are getting a mixed picture of how people are coping but on the whole there is definitely an increase in presentations of mental illness.

“When people go through a trauma often there is a delay before they develop more severe mental illness.” 

An expected economic recession could heighten the impact on mental health, he said.

Meanwhile, the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has written to all political parties calling for mental health services to be prioritised by the next government.

Dr Maeve Doyle, consultant psychiatrist and head of external affairs and public education at the College, said the sector required significant  to meet the challenges ahead.

“We really have a national emergency in relation to recruitment and retention for mental health services," said Dr Doyle. "We had 100 vacancies before the Covid situation and workforce planning documents say we need 800 specialist psychiatrists by 2023."

She added at 6% of the health budget funding for mental health services was “paltry” and needed to double.

“We need doubling of that immediately; up to 12%,” she said.

“The pandemic is really going to stretch our mental health services that are already underfunded and under-resourced” she said, adding that many of the ambitions of the last mental health strategy never came to pass.

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