Mahima Agarwal of the IFoA’s Diversity Advisory Group looks at the need for mental health support services, exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
Lately, there has been an increase in popularity of virtual experiences in arenas that I for one did not foresee, at least not in 2020 - think about being able to virtually climb Mount Everest, a virtual salsa lesson or online optometrist appointments.
However, how does one increase access to psychiatrists in such an environment?
Even before full lockdown was introduced, “millions of UK adults have felt panicked, afraid and unprepared because of the coronavirus pandemic” according to polling data from a study commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with the Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge. In addition, a survey by YoungMinds showed 83% of young people with mental health needs reported that their health had worsened as a result of the outbreak.
Unequal access to mental health services
With the increased need for mental health professionals as a result of the global pandemic, access to such professionals needs to be opened up.
The lack of ease of access has a greater impact on certain marginalised groups than others. When I use the word marginalised, I don't only mean the socio-economic factors or protected characteristics (the impact on whom is anyways exacerbated in the current environment) - I also think about segmentation by profession, personality type, or even school year, which are compounded by consequences of COVID-19 such as bereavement or unemployment.
Despite the focus on the issue of well-being within many organisations and in the media, the mental health charity, Mind, has said that people are struggling to get the support they need.
Access to such support and the success of any therapy can be variable for different cohorts of society.
Speaking to people who have undergone therapy for a number of years, as well as mental health professionals, one of the key factors in a successful therapy session is whether you feel that you are being understood. You are likely to feel more comfortable talking to someone from a similar background as the chances are they will have experienced similar situations and “lived” your reality.
The Lancet Psychiatry has published a position paper by a group of 25 leading psychiatrists and psychologists which identifies the need for innovative to establish ways to mitigate and manage mental health risks and inform interventions under pandemic conditions. Some of the aspects discussed include the need for online clinics and community support.
Virtual support might also encourage individuals to start seeking help outside their normal social and geographical boundaries; or to simply take the plunge to find help.
However, further research would need to be carried out to address the access issue to the c.10% Britons who are without internet access today (according to a 2018 survey by the Office for National Statistics). This digital divide exacerbates the underlying issue of timely identification and intervention which still remains, as the current proposed methodologies rely on digital platforms alongside social and psychological sciences.
The power of community
Apart from professional help, the power of the community and individual connections should not be underestimated. We know this to be the case in many other scenarios – be it social interactions or in the workplace. So it would seem to be true. Whether you are talking about your team at work, your immediate family circle, friendship sets, various other networks and groups, the communities we belong to can serve as a powerful support mechanism.
There is much work ahead to uniformly address mental health challenges. However, each one of us can make a difference today; by being cognisant and aware of our own mental health and of those around us, and simply pausing for a second to ask the other - “Are you okay?”