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Mental Health & Covid-19: A Perfect Storm

Mental Health Services have long been a “Cinderella” service, grossly underfunded, suffering from years of outsourcing and privatisation of services, and left reeling from the destruction of community mental health support services, during the 2008 austerity attacks. It is this back story that explains the pathetic state of affairs, as these services brace themselves for the oncoming “tsunami” of cases related to the pandemic and lockdown.

“The impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is already extremely concerning,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need to urgently increase investment in services for mental health or risk a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months, according to a policy brief on COVID-19 and mental health issued by the United Nations.

As a frontline mental health worker in Salford and a union steward, on a daily basis we deal with the extra psychological stresses related to the pandemic and lockdown. Colleagues and patients are suffering from the fear of infection, the isolation and loneliness of lockdown, and the crushing weight of worry and concern for family and friends. A reduction in home visits to patients and access to community support during the lockdown, has further exacerbated the mental health issues of our patients.

The union has led the campaign in our service to get the correct PPE for all staff, to support staff working from home and to deal with an increase in demand from members seeking advice and support. The union has been able to articulate the concerns and fears of members, and demand the protections and support they need. We have been able to get specific teams of staff to work from home, to have socially-distanced office space and shielding those with underlying health conditions. It is a mainly female workforce, with women at particular risk, particularly those who are juggling home-schooling, working from home and household tasks.
Specific population groups are at particular risk of COVID-related psychological distress. Frontline health-care workers, faced with heavy workloads, life-or-death decisions, and risk of infection, are particularly affected. During the pandemic, in China, health-care workers have reported high rates of depression (50%), anxiety (45%), and insomnia (34%) and in Canada, 47% of health-care workers have reported a need for psychological support.

The increase in people in need of mental health or psychosocial support has been compounded by the interruption to physical and mental health services in many countries. In addition to the conversion of mental health facilities into care facilities for people with COVID-19, care systems have been affected by mental health staff being infected with the virus and the closing of face-to-face services. Community services, such as self-help groups for alcohol and drug dependence, have, in many countries, been unable to meet for several months.

Globally, there has been a move to increase capacity of emergency telephone lines for mental health services. In the short term this can offer some extra support, but it also offers an opportunity to those hell bent on slashing services in the ongoing austerity crisis, to continue in the direction of cuts, outsourcing and privatisation. The same will be true of the services, where workers are now mainly working from home, such as Social Workers, with some employers looking at making this a more permanent feature of their working conditions, after the pandemic. Unions will need to focus on these attacks, as they weaken workers ability to organise, to offer appropriate services to clients and to influence the development of their service.

Salford is an area of high-deprivation and poverty, hit hard by a decade of Tory austerity, with the Local Government budget cut by 50%. The community mental health services in Salford were devastated by these attacks. During the pandemic, the most deprived parts of England and Wales have been hit twice as hard by coronavirus as wealthier areas, the Office for National Statistics said.

It is in this environment that frontline mental health workers are trying to support some of the most vulnerable people in our community. We are facing a period of mass unemployment, where the capitalist system will be unable and unwilling to take the measures necessary to defend jobs, Terms & Conditions and services. They will look to make working class communities pay for the economic recession and pandemic. These attacks will deepen the poverty of areas like Salford, already reeling from a decade of Tory attacks.

Also, the Office for National Statistics revealed that black people are more than four times more likely to die of coronavirus that white people. Even after adjusting the figures for age and gender, if a black person in this country falls ill with coronavirus, they are four times more likely to never make it home, to never see their family again. These figures are astounding and devastating. They show up the deep structural, social and health inequalities in this country that are putting minority groups in grave danger.

The latest stats come after weeks of seeing disproportionate numbers of BAME key workers die on the front lines – medics, care workers, bus drivers. There have also been reports that black and Asian people have a higher risk of severe illness with coronavirus, and findings that BAME communities will be hit hardest by the financial impact of the pandemic. For black people, these reports, studies and figures are hard to swallow. The constant stream of bad news is exhausting, demoralising and incredibly alienating. It’s an inescapable reminder of your unequal, lesser position within society – a position that could actually risk the life of you and your loved ones.

Trade Unions have to play a leading role in dealing with these injustices. We call for Trade Unions to lead a campaign against austerity, against the privatisation of Health and Social Care Services, and to demand their re-nationalisation.

We call for trade unions to link up with the magnificent BLM protests, bringing their organising skills and resources, to help these protests develop into an opposition to Tory austerity and Capitalism`s indifference to our suffering.

Poverty, racism, sexism and poor public services are an indictment of the capitalist system. The pandemic has highlighted it`s inability to deal with the crisis, and it`s inadequate response to meeting the needs of working class people.

Environmental Campaigners in 2019, have correctly identified that we need “system change”, and for those working in public health services, the pandemic has enabled many to draw the same conclusions. We need a system that does not put profit before people, that does not put the needs of Big Business and Capitalism over the needs of working class communities.
In times of extreme crisis, which the pandemic has created, massive social upheavals can develop, often bringing revolutionary change. After WWII, the Labour Government of 1945 was forced by working class movements to create a Welfare State, including the NHS and public housing. The very institutions that we now need to defend and rebuild.

Organising these social movements and campaigns, with trade union support, can help to develop a mass movement that can challenge the 1% that rule society and to bring about socialist change. In these stormy days let us take the opportunity to smash capitalism on the rocks.

As health workers, we have the opportunity to fight for a socialist society which can provide for all our needs. A society where our health, care, education and social needs are met.

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