Long Covid’s mental impact

Mental health services patchy across regions

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Mental health services for long Covid sufferers need levelling up across the regions, according to one sufferer and campaigner.

Jim Fox, a retired teacher, is set to return from the north east to Cumbria where he believes he will receive much greater help with his mental health problems resulting from long Covid.

Last year Sir Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, announced that people suffering long Covid symptoms would be offered specialist help at clinics, but Fox believes his experiences highlight how support can vary regionally.

“Overwhelmed by everything”

Fox was rushed to Carlisle Hospital, from his home in Kirby Stephen, on 17 December 2020. He woke up four days later in intensive care suffering from Covid pneumonia and requiring a constant oxygen supply. Over the following week he witnessed the deaths of fellow Covid sufferers and felt he might not survive.

“Doctors and staff had a very busy time. When I left hospital many of them lined up to wish me well. They had seen so many patients die I think they drew inspiration from those who survived,” said Fox, a keen fell walker who thought his active lifestyle would aid recovery.

“But it was tough. I was hardly able to walk and I couldn’t sleep because I feared not waking up.”

What helped considerably was support from the NHS.

“I had a physiotherapist ring and talk me through breathing exercises. The mental health service contacted me, as did my GP to make sure I was coping. They understood my experiences.”

Since his physical strength has improved, Fox, an active RSPB volunteer, and his wife Iris moved to Redcar, Teesside. But in his six months living there he’s found a “staggering” lack of help for people with mental health problems caused by long Covid.

“I was asked by a nurse if I should be referred to the long Covid unit. These are the things professionals should be initiating. I had a contact at the GP services where a nice person said they didn’t know what to do with me.”

Sharon Bailey also lives on Teesside and is suffering from long Covid.

Above: “I feel a sense of doom that won’t go away,” said sufferer Sharon Bailey. Main image: Jim Fox. Photos: Mark Harvey/id8photography

“I can find myself totally overwhelmed by everything,” she said. “It has affected me more mentally than physically as my executive functioning is still quite skewed. I’m having hallucinations and I don’t know if it is depression but I do feel a sense of doom that won’t go away.”

Bailey has yet to approach her GP to ask for help.

“A friend of mine with long Covid who is suffering mentally was told by a GP that they needed to sit it out,” she said. “Apart from being given anti-depressants what can be done?”

Bailey is a workplace rep for Unite the union, which is arguing that long Covid should be recognised as long-term illness and a disability.

“The problem is though, no one knows the prognosis or the treatment,” she said.

The trade union movement in the north west has organised events for members struggling to tackle mental health problems arising from long Covid.

According to Janet Newsom of the Manchester Hazards Centre, these meetings are not recorded so that they can host open debate but also because “workers are being threatened with dismissal if they have any more time off for Covid-related symptoms.”

Cat Cray of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers claims representatives of London Underground employees have pressed Transport for London on Covid-related mental health support.

“The biggest problem is it very much relies on having a good GP who will put it in writing. Cases on paper are lower than they should be.

“Nationally, our members are reporting the varying quality of long Covid clinics and how diagnosis depends on where you live.”

Research is lacking

The Confederation of British Industry, which represents 190,000 businesses, currently has no data or specific research into long Covid-related metal health problems, despite publishing an in-depth paper on mental health during the pandemic and a guide for employers to support staff’s wellbeing.

According to consultant psychiatrist Andrew Molodynski, the British Medical Association’s lead representative on mental health, long-Covid sufferers currently appear to be primarily seeking physical health care support for chronic fatigue and pain.

“But we are finding more people reporting mental health problems,” he said. “We have not heard of people being unable to access mental health support but our concern is that the existing long Covid services are relatively small and will fill up in six-12 months. This will be a problem as Covid is a chronic long-term condition that will require ongoing support for patients.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was asked how concerned it is that many more patients are reporting mental health problems as a result of long Covid and what it can do to tackle the problem, including ensuring that specialist help is equally available across all regions.

A spokesperson said: “We are determined to support those whose mental health has suffered during the pandemic and ensure everyone is able to access the help and advice they need.

“We have invested £50 million in research to ensure the right help and treatment is available to support people with long Covid and opened over 80 assessment clinics across England, backed by £100 million in additional funding.

“We want the UK to be a world leader in tackling long Covid and we will continue to support those suffering the long-term effects of the virus, including mental health conditions.”

Despite the redeeming success of the vaccination programme, faith in the government’s ability to be a “world leader” in healthcare was shaken last week when a landmark inquiry, by the Commons science and technology committee, found the early handling of the pandemic ranks as “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

Fox and his wife are now waiting for their housing association to find them a suitable property in Penrith.

“Moving back to Cumbria will be costly, but I am convinced it will prove better in the long term because I will get the mental health support I need.”

Interact: Responses to Long Covid’s mental impact

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