Minister says NHS mental health services not overburdened by impact of COVID

Connor Parker
·4-min read
Nadine Dorries said the government had invested heavily in mental health services. (PA)
Nadine Dorries said the government had invested heavily in mental health services. (PA)

The mental health minister has said she has not seen an increase in demand for wellbeing services since the start of the pandemic, despite many hospitals saying they’re struggling to cope.

ITV News’ Robert Peston pointed mental health minister Nadine Dorries to figures from the children’s commissioner that said there had been a 35% rise in referrals to mental health services for children and NHS workers felt overwhelmed by the surge in demand.

In response to the question, she said she did not “get that feedback” from the senior health professionals she talks to.

Dorries said they had seen a rise in demand for mental health services from girls aged between 16-26 and people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Research from the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust found that, while wellbeing and self-esteem are similar in boys and girls at the end of primary school and both decline, girls see a greater decrease by the age of 14.

Dorries said: “Throughout the pandemic, there was no closing of any mental health services across the UK. Not only did those mental health services not close, we’ve put in place additional services.”

In January, NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens told the Health and Social Care Committee while fortunately, the country had not seen a rise in suicides he did say “ “in other areas such as young people’s mental health services and eating disorders, urgent referrals really are going up very very sharply.”

Dorries said she had seen figures which said there had been a 22% rise in referrals in the year up to November 2020.

The children’s commissioner has warned last week mental health services are “nowhere near” to meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of children struggling through the coronavirus pandemic.

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There have been concerns about pressures on mental health services as people struggle through lockdown. (Getty)
There have been concerns about pressures on mental health services as people struggle through lockdown. (Getty)

Anne Longfield said there have been some improvements but a lack of ambition from the government is hindering progress.

She said the research, which largely covers the year up to March 2020, reveals a system without the “necessary capacity or flexibility” to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The children’s commissioner’s report said in the year before the pandemic, referrals to children’s mental health services increased by 35% while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just 4%.

She said a postcode lottery remains around local areas’ spending, waiting times, access, and how many children are referred to services and go on to receive support.

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A large NHS study in July 2020 found that one in six children have a probable mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017.

Dorries said £8m had been invested in return to school support for children’s wellbeing and expanded 24 helplines.

She said: “One thing I will say particularly about children and young people is they’re almost dictating now how they want their services delivered.

COVID in its own way has acted as a catalyst, before young people would have to go somewhere to receive mental health one to one services, they’re now demanding they have that over the phone, on their laptop, in their home.”

She said £500m had been directed to increase capacity within the NHS for mental health support this year with some of that going to expanding digital provision.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the government must “wake up” to a mental health crisis threatening to “engulf” a generation.

He said: “Nearly a year of lockdowns, fear and anxiety, disruption to education and uncertainty about the future has added to the already shocking numbers of young people who have nowhere to turn for professional help.

“We know from our services young people are struggling at home without their usual support networks, having to cope with the pressures of remote learning, family health fears, loneliness and pressure in the home – all the while being bombarded by social media and depressing headlines.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?