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No health without mental health: why this matters now more than ever

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Coronavirus (COVID-19), Health and Wellbeing, Mental health
Most of us are spending more time indoors during COVID-19.

Mental Health Awareness Week helps to promote and reiterate the importance of good mental health for everyone. Difficult emotions in the face of coronavirus (COVID-19) are a natural and widespread reaction and for most will recede with time. That does not make dealing with them easy.

It is an important time for all of us to look after our mental health and wellbeing. However, for some people the situation is much more difficult, and we anticipate that new mental health problems are likely to emerge, and recognise that existing conditions may get worse. That is why PHE are leading work to support the population’s mental health through the pandemic. This blog provides an outline of the key activities we are undertaking.

Coordinating the national and local response

Mental health services play a key role and are adapting and responding to the challenges brought about by COVID-19, to continue to provide services that are accessible and timely. But there is also a need to focus and act across the life course on the key drivers of poor mental health being exacerbated by the pandemic and take action to prevent this crisis driving increases in health inequalities.

PHE are adopting a coordinated national and local approach to the mental health and psychosocial impact of COVID-19, which is aligned with international good practice guidelines and frameworks and underpinned by co-operation and the highest levels of commitment.

Making mental health a priority

Maintaining good mental health and ensuring the right support is available for people with existing mental illnesses are crucial components in the response to COVID-19 and its wider impact. PHE has already made mental health one of its corporate priority areas in the 5-year strategy, and this continues to be a priority in our response to this national emergency.

Supporting the public with advice and guidance

PHE has published guidance for the public on the mental health implications of the pandemic, what action they can take and where they can access further support. We have produced guidance for adults, parents and carers of children and young people, as well as easy-read versions for people with learning disabilities.

We have also launched an updated Every Mind Matters online resource on self-care advice responding to the mental health and wellbeing challenges of the pandemic, aligned with wider government guidance on staying safe and alert.

Providing the system with the best evidence and data we can 

We can learn from previous outbreaks and financial downturns to inform our response to COVID-19. PHE is committed to using evidence to shape our work, and we are drawing on current research projects and published studies to inform our approach and identify opportunities for future research.

Data must drive what we do. PHE is taking a leading role in providing senior decision-makers across the system and within government with near real-time information about changing population mental health and wellbeing impacts during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. We have produced a weekly tracker bringing together population survey data, mental health helpline numbers, healthcare service data and online analytics, including data from vulnerable groups.

Alongside this, we are supporting the development of a Real Time Suicide Surveillance System collating data from approximately 20 local systems to help assess if there is variation in the number and nature of deaths by suicide in the population because of the COVID-19 situation.

Taking a whole system approach focussed on inequalities and key risk factors

The challenges created by the pandemic mean that we must do all we can to ensure that it does not drive increased health inequalities. We will take action to prevent and mitigate the impact being disproportionately felt by those with particular needs or vulnerabilities, such as people from BAME communities or those with existing mental health issues.

Key to this is addressing the determinants of poor mental health that are being affected by COVID-19, such as financial difficulties and debt, unemployment, bereavement, domestic violence and abuse, risky alcohol consumption, substance misuse, and gambling addiction.

Key organisations and Departments across health and social care and wider (for example Education, Criminal Justice, Employment, Welfare and others) are working together to deliver a coordinated whole systems approach to the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s mental health.

Championing the voluntary and community sector (VCS)

At a time that the public is becoming more aware of the value of local community support, many organisations are facing unprecedented challenges to keep their doors open. We recognise this and are working with colleagues in Government and local areas to reflect these issues and ensure that the VCS is adequately factored into the response to COVID-19, and to protect these essential services and networks.

As part of this, PHE is closely involved in the announcement and allocation of £5 million of additional funding that has been announced for the Mental Health voluntary sector.

Supporting and equipping our workforce

This is an incredibly challenging time for frontline workers, both in terms of their own mental health and providing support to others. We are ensuring appropriate mental health and wellbeing advice and support is given to the frontline workforce through liaison with relevant health and social care bodies.

PHE is updating its existing e-learning module for Psychological First Aid (PFA) during emergencies to make it COVID relevant for a range of frontline workers, volunteers and others. PFA is a straightforward way of delivering psychosocial care in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. It involves relating to people in a caring and compassionate way without judgement. It gives hope, encouraging positive coping and practical help.

This is currently available on – PHE’s learning and development platform for emergency planners, accessible for NHS and PHE staff – and we are working with Future Learn and Health Education England’s E-Learning for Health platform to get this available to a broader audience in early June.

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of action on mental health across society and with the most vulnerable. Proper action will ensure that we are able to weather the physical, social and economic challenges that lie ahead.

Lots of our partners are doing fantastic work on these issues, and there is lots of great advice and evidence being developed. Domestic activity is being drawn together on a dedicated Knowledge Hub, and there are also some fantastic international resources such as the Inter-Agency Standing (IASC) Committee Briefing  and the United Nations have also launched a policy brief highlighting the need for action on mental health. 

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