Making mental health conversations the norm post-Covid- Mental Health recovery plan

By Dean Russell MP, Watford

In partnership with:

Alexandra Hunter, Herts Mind Network
Alison May, Watford & Three Rivers Trust
Peter Edwards, Safter Neighbourhood Inspector
Rabi Martin, Local councillor and Mental Health Champion for Watford
Rob Edmonds, New Hope Charity
Sara Crean-Muir, local mental health nurse
Helen Newman, Signpost South West Herts

Part 1: Covid-19 and its impact on mental health

The Covid crisis has significantly impacted our mental health in Watford, across Hertfordshire and indeed up and down the UK. Lockdown has brought on a rise in conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety, and existing conditions have worsened in many cases due to a lack of face to face help.

The crisis has brought us a real opportunity too - to get to grips with improving support for mental health, and importantly, making conversations around mental health the norm in our society.

I brought together some of our fantastic charities and organisations from across Hertfordshire in a virtual summit on mental health, and together we have come up some immediate actions to normalise mental health experiences in society post-Covid. Here is an executive summary of the summit and a plan detailing what happens next as we progress this important work.

Lack of face-to-face help

Charities such as Herts Mind have found that reaching out to people living with mental health conditions is a big challenge currently, as services such as counselling have gone fully remote. Many people who need help have severe and long-term issues, and they cannot be helped remotely. Others are choosing to wait until face-to-face services resume.

Many local charities and organisations have successfully continued counselling services during Covid. Signpost helps young people in South West Hertfordshire – they’ve delivered nearly 900 sessions online since lockdown. The recurring issues during this period have been anxiety, stress and family.  The charity reports there are people on their waiting list who only want face-to-face help, and this list has shot up recently as we leave lockdown.

Rise in stress and anxiety

Many of our young people are living with emotional and behavioural difficulties including depression, anxiety, bipolar, anger and self-harm. The pandemic has seen our local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) change their working hours to 24/7 to meet demand.

Herts Mind put on a 24/7 crisis helpline and have had more than 2,000 calls in 3 months – 219 calls a day on average.

The Safer Neighbourhood Inspector for Watford, Peter Edwards (who is also a suicide intervention negotiator), regularly visits people living in crisis. Most of the people he helps have a mental health issue. Peter reports seeing a slight increase in domestic violence during lockdown – this includes stress between children and parents and siblings arguing.

Early intervention from a young age is vital if we are to avoid a worsening situation later on in life.

However, it’s not just young people affected by stress and anxiety. Watford & Three Rivers Trust have seen a rise in low level stress and anxiety during their recent welfare calls. They report cases where people haven’t gone out to get their medication over the lockdown period, resulting in worsening mental health.

Many people are fearful and anxious about losing their jobs. Sara, a local mental health nurse, reports that people who may not have met furloughing or other support requirements are now beginning to come forward for help – and this is a section of society we need to highlight.

Missed out people

While some people are now beginning to come forward for help, there will be many others who don’t, such as those who are unemployed or not in the workplace. By not seeking help now, they risk their condition worsening and needing bigger interventions in the future. The process of people referring themselves is often complicated, confusing, and can be scary as people don’t want to open themselves up to become even more vulnerable. We need simple and effective guidance on how people can refer themselves for help.

Rough sleeping and addiction

Homeless charity New Hope has worked with Watford Borough Council and the local YMCA to get over 100 rough sleepers off the streets and into accommodation during this pandemic. This is one of the great local success stories over the past few weeks however these people will need the right support in turning their lives around moving forward.

New Hope has helped 620 people in the past year, almost half (46 per cent) experience mental health difficulties. While the charity still supports them through activities around mindfulness, they are finding that people are beginning to relapse in terms of their mental health and addiction as lockdown now eases.

Mental health sectioning facilities under serious pressure

Covid has put our local sectioning facilities under serious pressure. You can be sectioned under the Mental Health Act - taken to a place of safety - if your own health or safety or that of other people is at risk.

Many people needing these facilities are in crisis, and the pandemic is making it difficult for them to cope. The Safer Neighbourhood Inspector for Watford, Peter Edwards, reports that 7 people were sectioned in Watford, at just one stage in one day. Their suite in Watford is constantly fully booked at the moment.

Part 2: Recovering mental health services from Covid.

Our immediate priority is to get the right help to the people who need it now. But if we are to truly improve our nation’s mental health in the long term, we need to pick up the signs of mental health issues early on, and ‘normalise’ mental health conversations in society. I want Watford to lead the way in this.

Normalising mental health from school age

Stigma is sadly still a big problem in our country. Mental health is still a poor cousin to physical health and we need a cultural change.

We should begin in our schools. Our children need to know it’s normal to talk about their emotional health at school. We can start to do this on an informal basis – dedicated 1-2-1 sessions, one a term, in which pupils are asked about how they are feeling and encouraged to talk about their emotional state under supervision. Let’s begin this in Watford. I will meet with local schools to see how we can work together to progress this.

If we make conversations around mental health the norm from an early age, we can pick up issues early on and save a lot of money through prevention in later life.

Normalising mental health through peer support

Another important way we can normalise mental health experiences is through peer-support in the workplace. By talking about our emotional health with our friends and colleagues, we can pick up early signs of conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Let’s make peer support networks in workplaces the norm across the UK. I would like Watford’s businesses and organisations to lead the way – if we can have support systems being set up in 10 per cent of our local businesses and organisations over the next 12 months, we will be well on our way. I will meet with local businesses and other partners to see how we can work together to progress this.

1,000 mental health volunteers across Watford.

Here in Watford, together with Watford Chamber of Commerce, local mental health champion councillor Rabi Martin and Wellspring Church, we are working to set up a town-wide peer support network - my ambition is to recruit 1,000 mental health first aiders across Watford.

Whether in our schools, offices, or neighbourhoods, our town’s first aiders will help improve the mental wellbeing of people around them – be it their friends, families or colleagues.

If we are to succeed in this, we need to help the people who want to help their community. Volunteers will be putting themselves out there and dealing with often complex, traumatic or crisis cases.  As well as time, they also need the right training, support and supervision.

We expect to open training in 2021 and the practical two-day session will cover how to spot the triggers and signs of mental health issues; provide the confidence to step in, reassure and support a person in distress; and help enhance interpersonal skills such as non-judgemental listening.

If we get this right, not only will be vastly improve lives, we will lift the burden on our NHS and our criminal justice system, saving money in the long run.

Recommendations:

  1. Let’s begin to make mental health conversations the norm in our schools. We can start on an informal basis – dedicated 1-2-1 sessions, a minimum of one per pupil, per term, in which they are asked about how they are feeling and encouraged to talk about their emotional state under supervision. Let’s begin in Watford. I will meet with local schools to see how we can work together to progress this.
  2. Let’s get colleagues in the workplace talking to each other about their mental health. My ambition is to make peer support networks in the work place the norm across the UK. I would like Watford’s businesses and organisations to lead the way - if we can have support systems being set up in 10 per cent of our local businesses and organisations over the next 12 months, we will be well on our way. I will meet with local businesses and other partners to see how we can work together to progress this.
  3. We are working on a town-wide peer support network. My ambition is to recruit 1,000 mental health first aiders across Watford. These will be people in Watford helping to improve the mental wellbeing of their friends, colleagues and neighbours. We hope to begin practical training sessions in 2021.

You can listen to the full conversation on my community podcast: Watford Matters with Dean Russell (also available in places like Spotify and Apple)