Health Experts Warn Against 'Second Pandemic' In Mental Health, Domestic Violence And Child Safeguarding
Health experts are warning that the UK could be headed towards a 'second pandemic', relating to domestic violence, child safeguarding and mental health.
With the UK currently directing nearly all efforts towards fighting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this has created an unprecedented set of circumstances for services that are unable to operate as usual.
Statistics have already shown that instances of domestic abuse are rising dramatically during the lockdown, and other crucial services - including health visitors responsible for the safety and support of young families and their children - believe that a post-virus crisis is 'inevitable'.
Last month, the domestic abuse charity Refuge reported a 700 percent increase in calls to their dedicated helpline in a single day, while another helpline that offers help to perpetrators of domestic abuse seeking help to change their behaviour also saw a 25 percent increase.
The government announced a £76 million ($94m) fund to help the 'most vulnerable' people navigate their way through the pandemic earlier this month, but that figure is a long way short of the £173m ($214.7m) Women's Aid estimates is needed to prevent women and children being turned away from shelters.
Alison Morton, Director of Policy and Quality at the Institute of Health Visitors, explained that the situation regarding the mental health of families and their children was already poor before the crisis, and the forecast suggests that will become much worse as the fallout from the pandemic continues.
She told LADbible: "About 10 percent of women and a similar number of men get post-natal depression or anxiety, and we pick those people up because we know that small problems become big problems.
"Things are much easier to help with, the earlier you find them.
"Sadly, there was a big report done recently that said that around 50 percent of parents who struggle with perinatal mental illness - it's called the 'hidden half' - aren't found so they struggle on their own and don't get the support that we know makes a huge difference."
She continued: "Obviously at the moment we're very worried about families living with domestic violence, increasing mental health problems, substance misuse and child protection safeguarding.
"All of that would be a reason that families would have more contact.
"That's our number one concern. When the NHS set up this Covid-19 emergency plan, the priority was to focus on slowing down the spread of the virus, treating people who are infected with Covid-19.
"A lot of effort went into building those hospitals, redeploying nurses, and getting systems in place to deal with shutting the country down into lockdown.
"Almost straight away we've been lobbying to say that actually there's a secondary pandemic that we need to have our eyes fixed on.
"There was a lot of learning that came out of Italy and China and other countries that were ahead of us in this pandemic that said that very quickly that the lockdown has a more significant impact on families and children."
Health visitors not only play a key role in assessing how children are developing and keeping up the families' health and well-being, but they also play a key role in reporting concerns and encouraging families who need support to access other services.
Morton added: "We know that children are very unlikely to have any harm from catching the virus, but are at far, far greater risk from living in a family that NHS safeguarding has called 'pressure-cooker homes'.
"This is families that were just about managing in normal circumstances, but the additional stress of losing your job and being locked indoors, maybe in very tiny cramped accommodations, with pre-existing mental health problems, the impact of lockdown is going to tip those families over the edge and into the safeguarding arena.
"There are no eyes on these children - children under the age of two particularly because they don't go into nursery.
"We're very much reliant on supporting families to tell us about the things that really matter to them so that we can help them.
"It's not blaming families for having a problem, we're saying that it's really important that you get the help that you need to keep going. Just because you've got a mental health problem doesn't mean that you can't be a great parent but we know that having the right support makes a huge difference and we're worried that those families aren't being found.
"We know that's true, actually.
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"The evidence that is emerging is that referrals for child safeguarding have gone down, but calls to the crisis line for domestic violence has gone up massively.
"It's a bit of a toxic cocktail, really. You've got greater need and reduced support."
Outside of the family, mental health services are also finding that problems are going unreported at the moment.
Statistics from mental health charity Mind state that, of 8,200 people they spoke to about the effects of the coronavirus on their health, almost a quarter had tried to access support in the last fortnight and been unable to.
They also cite that global experts have called upon governments to act now to increase mental health support for those in need.
The NHS has moved to reassure those in need of support to come forward, and advised that mental health services are still open. However, Mind's figures suggest that they too are struggling with the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdown.
In a statement, Paul Farmer, Mind's Chief Executive, said: "As a nation, a vast number of us have seen our mental health deteriorate during the coronavirus crisis. It is therefore deeply concerning that people are struggling to get the help that they urgently need. Evidence shows that when people do not get support early enough, they end up in crisis.
"People with mental health problems have been hit hard by the current situation. We are particularly worried that some people are being discharged too early from hospital, while others have been left languishing on mental health wards, because of the current limited the availability of community support.
"Being sent home at the wrong time can delay recovery and, at worst, puts people at high risk of suicide.
"A drop in the number of referrals to NHS mental health services, including those for children, is worrying when we know the need is high. It has never been more important that people are encouraged to access mental healthcare that is timely, appropriate, and available at the point of need.
"If not, we are storing up more complex problems for the future."
The statement concluded: "The coronavirus pandemic is not just a physical health emergency. People with mental health problems must not be forgotten."
Of the problems that have been reported, many of them are as a result of the lockdown conditions that the UK is currently restricted by.
The crisis inevitably leaves people stuck in their houses with abusers, and those with mental health issues on their own, as well as leaving families in situations of heightened stress and responsibility with little help.
Despite that, Morton argued that in certain circumstances, common sense must prevail.
She explained: "In emergency circumstances people have to do the right thing. If you are a mother and you're living in a home where you're the victim of domestic abuse, we'd say go somewhere where you're going to be safe. That always take priority in an emergency.
"But how do you define that spectrum of what's an emergency? Obviously, domestic violence is an easy one, and acute mental distress could be another, but it's difficult."
Another difficulty has been that many of the practitioners who would otherwise be responsible for visiting the vulnerable have been redeployed to the front line of the fight against Covid-19.
This might seem like a reasonable course of action, but Morton believes it will lead to further complications in future.
The Institute estimates that - in some areas - as many as 70 percent of health visitors have been redeployed since the pandemic began. That leaves only a 'skeleton and very poor service for families' in those areas.
She concluded: "The secondary pandemic is just as important as the primary one, and families need support.
"I think it's almost inevitable, sadly. If we follow the learning from other countries, we need be prepared for that and be ready to support families.
"Number one is to find the families that are struggling and encourage them to come forward and ask for help, and the second is to have the capacity in the workforce to do something about it.
"We need to plan for rebuilding services and catching up. Families that got missed will come up to the surface, and they will be found much later than they would have been. Inevitably for those families, their problems will be much greater than they could have been if they were given support earlier."
"I heard a story the other day of a health visitor who stopped a mother's suicide attempt because she picked up some alarm bells, and went around and discovered this mother who was about to take her own life.
"Sadly, there will be cases where this wasn't in place, and there will be babies who will get injured because parents can't cope with the crying.
"Non-accidental injuries rates in children have already started to rise, which is really sad.
"Of all of those, how much is related to impact of the pandemic and the effects of lockdown is going to be difficult to tease out, but certainly if there had been better support to pick those families up earlier, it could turn out better for those families."
Featured Image Credit: PA