Concern over mental health impact of COVID-19

Services already overburdened
  • Deborah Condon

Psychiatrists have expressed serious concern about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on "an already overburdened, underdeveloped mental health service in Ireland".

In a letter to all the major political parties, Dr William Flannery, the president of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland (CPI), expressed concern about the impact the virus is having now, and the impact it will have in the future, in both hospital and community settings.

"While there have been many excellent service improvements implemented nationwide over the last decade, it is well known and documented that multidisciplinary, recovery-oriented, individual-based care is patchy and insufficient nationwide.

"The deficits and shortcomings across mental health services, due to a myriad of documented reasons, have become more pronounced with the advent of COVID-19," Dr Flannery said.

He called on the next government to ensure that the development of mental health services is put "to the fore of health service development".

He pointed out that 25% of the Irish population is affected by a mental health disorder at any one time and this figure is expected to increase as a result of COVID-19.

In fact, some mental health services are already recording an increase in new referrals "as a direct result of the stress and circumstances caused by the coronavirus restrictions and subsequent isolation and anxieties around it".

Dr Flannery noted that preliminary data from the recent NUIG/DCU Corona Citizens Science Project survey suggests that mental health and wellbeing have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, when compared with the Healthy Ireland Survey of 2016.

The initial findings also suggest that the negative mental health effects of the pandemic appear to be greater among younger people.

Dr Flannery highlighted that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) that treat moderate to severe mental illnesses in young people, currently only operate with 65% of the teams required in Ireland.

Furthermore, those teams operate at only around 55% of the staffing complement required by the multidisciplinary team nationwide.

"CAMHS consultants are already experiencing significant levels of burnout and stress. A recent survey of child and adolescent psychiatrists by Prof F McNicholas found that work-related burnout was the highest, with three in four respondents having experienced significant burnout, and two out of three reporting emotional exhaustion. The after-effects of COVID-19 are likely to see levels further exacerbated," Dr Flannery said.

He emphasised that future generations should be given the best possible support and treatment as "they are the cohort who will lead the country's recovery - economic, social and emotional - from COVID-19 for decades to come".

Healthcare professionals, including those working in the area of mental health, also need support as otherwise, they will not be able to do their jobs properly.

The CPI made a number of recommendations for this area, including:
-The creation of a national cross-sectoral taskforce now and post-COVID-19 to address the mental health ramifications of the virus
-A national urgent effort to address the recruitment and retention crisis in mental health services. This is more crucial now due to the impact of COVID-19 as before the virus, there were 100 vacant specialist (consultant) posts
-An immediate doubling - to at least 12% - of the overall health budget allocated to run and continue the development of mental health services.

"The next government has a real opportunity to change and shape how we support and care for those with mental illness in Ireland and to leave a legacy of success where every Irish citizen has an equal right and ability to lead full, socially and economically productive lives.

"The new Ireland post-coronavirus will expect a society that recognises and ensures mental illness is given, at a minimum, parity of esteem and integration with physical healthcare," Dr Flannery added.


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