‘We remain in the mid of a health crisis – a physical and mental health crisis.’
These are the words of Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, in a post about the forthcoming public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic. The government states that the purpose of the inquiry is to ‘learn the lessons from the pandemic and inform the government’s preparations for the future,’ but mental health does not feature in the remit.
A demand for mental health support as a result of Covid has had a profound impact on England’s mental health services, and the government is yet to address it. Referrals for mental health services increased by over 5,000 between 2020 and 2021, and thousands of patients in need of support are being turned away due to buckling under full capacity.
The ongoing repercussions of the pandemic have been somewhat lost amidst headline news from Ukraine. Although it may not be in the limelight of the media, it is important to remember that we are facing the lagging effects of Covid and its associated restrictions on the mental ill-health of millions in the UK.
The data showing reports of mental ill-health is alarming, and it appears that we have a more reticent epidemic on our hands that had not been foreseen when Covid locked the world indoors in March 2020.
Research has shown that teenage girls are suffering the most. An analysis report from STEER Education in 2022 suggests that girls aged eleven are 30% more likely to experience mental health issues than their male peers. This gender disparity is doubled in girls who are eighteen. Rachel, who is eighteen, had just left school when the pandemic hit:
“My mental health during that first year of lockdown was probably the worst it has ever been. I felt so lacking in purpose. I was waking up and trying to think of something to do to fill the day, a reason to get out of bed. I spent a lot of days crying because I didn’t know what to do to enjoy myself anymore.”
Despite the lack of National Health support for people seeking help, the pandemic has seen a rise in independent organisations across the country, including Cornwall. Georgia’s Voice is the legacy of Georgia Lee Gallaway, who took her own life in July 2020, aged 19. Her mother, Sophie Alway, decided to start the charity which provides support for young women across Cornwall.
“Through our support groups we create a vast network of support, we provide safe spaces for the girls to talk, or not talk! Somewhere they will really be listened to, with empathy, not judgement. We help teach ways of promoting their own well-being, as well as making them aware of the other services that are out there to help them when they are in need.”
Sophie said, “There has definitely been a rise in Mental Health issues due to the pandemic and unfortunately a lot of people are not getting the help they need.”
The public inquiry into how the country coped with a pandemic should look to answer the questions that parents like Sophie are asking: What is being done for the young people who are suffering as a result of strained mental health services?
It is also worth questioning whether the crisis is exclusively gender oriented. With only 13.2% of young men seeking mental health support in 2007, it could be said that the number of young girls affected by poor mental health is only so high because they are willing to come forward and express their need for help. In other words, these are only the numbers that we can see. Indeed, there is a gender divide, with most support services providing emotional groups that encourage people to speak about mental health issues in the company of their own gender. Given the gender difference in teenage emotional processing, this seems like a productive solution.
Child support charity, Chance UK, states that ‘Without timely support, internalising behaviour patterns and low self-esteem can become entrenched, moving from a lower-level difficulty to a much deeper mental ill-health struggle in adolescence and adult life.’ The way forward is undoubtedly to focus on ‘prevention’ as well as treatment if we are to begin to unravel the backlog of pressure on mental health services that the pandemic has caused.
There are communities and organisations in Cornwall who aim to do just this by creating emotional stability from the ground up. One such organisation is TIDE Benow, a forest school for girls aged 8-12 which offers nature-based experiences across Cornwall to build resilience, confidence, and self-esteem in young girls. Given that 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14, it is crucial now more than ever for communities to provide the opportunity for young people to build supportive relationships and connect to nature.
Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity SANE, says ‘We need urgent action or our failures to act now may leave us with a lost generation.’ But in absence of the government taking responsibility for struggling support services, we are left to rely on the independent charities and communities who serve the wellbeing of our future minds.
See below for mental health resources for people of all ages in Cornwall and the UK: