In the Connect Health Change webinar series Charlotte Augst, chief executive of the charity National Voices, presented the findings of a study detailing the experiences of over 6,000 people with ongoing health struggles during the first wave of the pandemic. It revealed that many patients felt abandoned during the first wave of the pandemic or reported that the information they were provided with was inconsistent, superficial, and failed to acknowledge the hardship that they were facing.

Charlotte commented: “Patients simply don’t distinguish between physical and mental health in the way the healthcare system does. It’s the same thing to them. And the areas the system often lets them down on – pain, fatigue, breathlessness, anxiety - are exactly at the interface between physical and mental health.”

She attributed a system-wide failure to recognise where the majority of care for patients takes place and consequentially provide relevant guidance, to an overall lack of substantive leadership from organisations and healthcare authorities: “As far as I know, not a single piece of information has been produced by NICE, the Government or NHS about how to care for yourself during Covid, yet the vast majority of care has taken place in people’s bedrooms and living rooms. This is an example of the complete blank when it comes to realising that most healthcare takes place inside our own homes and communities.”

Only 43% of people with mental health problems are in employment

Another speaker Claire Forkes, service manager, Occupational Health Services at Connect Health, tapped into what will be a growing concern over the coming months and years as the hangover of the pandemic and Brexit develops into deep economic insecurity: “A shocking statistic is that just 43% of people with mental health problems are in employment and that’s just not good enough. Mental health is expected to be a continuing growing concern post-Covid, as are unemployment levels.”

Claire identified a simple solution to this worrying trend and commented: "Sadly, not much has changed in 10 years. Hopefully, a positive from the pandemic is refreshing our focus. Employment is one of the most strongly evidenced determinants of mental health, so it’s well worth our time… [in] helping show how this can be embedded. A simple example, such as offering flexible appointment times, can be the difference between someone keeping their job or not.”

Tailor mental health services to the lived experiences of BAME communities

An additional approach to transforming systems to improve access to mental health services was proposed by Mini Mangat, head of patient engagement at Connect Health. She said that services would be better provided to Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME) if these services were better tailored to their lived experiences.

She said: “The pandemic has had economic and social impacts that are disproportionately affecting specific groups, such as BAME communities, and so tackling inequalities, especially racism, is vital, emotive and challenging. It requires leaders and individuals to understand their own biases, beliefs and behaviours. It needs every component to recognise the stark reality of inequality.”

Mini outlined how person-centric care could work through the personalisation and recognition of cultural backgrounds, and getting the right organisation and voices involved in providing a more localised and reflective care service; adding that: “It’s not as easy as taking our workshops to communities, we need to establish lasting relationships through adapting and co-creating culturally-sensitive initiatives. We should be getting our practitioners in front of these people to build relationships – not the other way around.”