And then the coronavirus happened – Mark Winstanley of the Rethink Mental Illness charity sets out why a major coalition of voluntary and social sector organisations is calling on the UK Prime Minister to create a Mental Health Renewal Plan for England.

At the start of this year, and despite the many challenges faced, I felt a real sense of optimism about the future. After many years of campaigning to improve the support and care available to people severely affected by mental illness, the introduction of the NHS England Long Term Plan at long last provided a roadmap and funding for much needed change. In tandem, hard won commitments to reform the Mental Health Act were on the verge of delivery.

And then the coronavirus happened…

The resulting crisis has affected us all. But what has become clear is that it has disproportionately impacted on people living with mental illness. In a survey recently conducted by Rethink Mental Illness, we found that of 1,400 people living with mental illness, 79% said that their mental health had got worse as a result of the pandemic. 42% cited problems in accessing services as a causal factor.

In response both the public and voluntary sectors have had to adapt at pace to provide support safely and effectively. But there is more that needs to be done both to support those already living with mental illness and those who have and will develop mental health problems resulting from isolation and the economic impact of the pandemic. That’s  why Rethink Mental Illness, along with 50 other voluntary and social sector organisations, recently wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to implement a Mental Health Renewal Plan – a New Social Contract for a Mentally Healthier Nation, so that we can meet both the immediate and long term challenges that we face.

In our letter to the PM, we called for three things.

First, we must establish a Mental Health Renewal Taskforce that will lead on delivering the Renewal Plan. The Taskforce must be multi-agency, cross-sector, and chaired by a member of the cabinet. While the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act put forward a number of recommendations to improve the treatment of people in crisis, the remit of the Taskforce needs to be wider, focusing on protecting and supporting everyone’s mental health and incorporate social care, to finally deliver true parity of esteem.

Secondly, we must address the long-term underfunding of mental health services and agree to an ambitious government funding settlement. While much needed funding has been made available in the short-term this will not sustain the increased demand support generated by the pandemic. With proper financial backing, we can increase the capacity of support helplines that are already helping thousands of people, create preventative national peer support programmes that help those in need before more serious issues arise, and develop clear and targeted communications to ensure the public knows where and how to access help if it’s needed.

Safe spaces

Finally, we must adopt a mental health and wellbeing-informed perspective in leading the nation’s recovery approach. There is already plenty of appetite among all sectors to create psychologically safe spaces for their employees and communities, and that will only become greater as we continue to return to “normal” operations. There are already examples of where this has been done well. Building on this we need clear guidance for businesses and institutions so that this can be scaled up. We have an opportunity to create a genuine partnership to renew our mental health services and create a truly mentally healthy society.

Over the course of three months, the country has had to bear far more emotional weight than it has had to in a long time. If we do nothing, we will continue to feel the impact of this crisis for many years to come. The voluntary and social sector is committed to doing all it can to support people living with mental illness, but without the proper governmental backing and cross-governmental approach we will jeopardise our chances of recovering from this pandemic.

Find out more:

Survey on impact of Covid-19 on people living with mental illness

Letter to PM

A New Social Contract for a Mentally Healthier Society