Drop in people with mental health problems seeking help in first lockdown

Trafalgar Square in London during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Under increased measur
Trafalgar Square in London during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Under increased measures people can no longer leave their home without a reasonable excuse and schools must shut for most pupils.

During last April – when the UK was in full lockdown – there was a drop of more than a third in the number of people seeking help for mental illness or self-harm, according to a new study.

Researchers found that during the first full month of the UK wide lockdown, the number of incidents of depression recorded in GP records dropped by 43%, while incidents of anxiety disorders dropped by 47.8%.

The prescribing of antidepressants also dropped significantly – by 36.4%.

The research was conducted by the National Institute for Health Research Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre (NIHR GM PSTRC).

Dr Matthew Carr, who co-led the study, from the University of Manchester said: “It is widely believed that there was an increase in the number of people with symptoms of mental illness in April due to the extra pressures from the lockdown.

“However, our research has revealed a sharp reduction in recorded illness diagnoses and self-harm episodes.

“By September 2020 our data shows that these frequencies had returned to near normal in England.”

As well as identifying the general trend of people not seeking help during April 2020, the research also uncovered significant treatment gaps.

This was greatest for people of working age and those registered at general practices in more deprived areas where the reduction in diagnoses coded was greatest.

According to the study published in Lancet Public Health, the number of people presenting with self-harm was 37.6% lower than expected in April and the reduction was greatest for females and those aged under 45.

Dr Sarah Steeg, presidential fellow in mental health epidemiology at the University of Manchester who also led on the research, said: “It is understandable that people didn’t seek help at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

“However, GPs moved quickly to offer remote consultations for many appointments.

“The consequences of patients not receiving help when they need it could result in further struggles for those individuals, and therefore they must be encouraged to seek support if they are worried about their mental health.

“This research has shown how addressing delays in diagnosis and treatment for mental illness and self-harm requires prioritisation, particularly for the groups of people we’ve identified as experiencing the biggest treatment gaps.

“As we manage ongoing fluctuations in Covid-19 rates, we hope our research findings can be used to inform public health messaging targeted at specific groups of patients which will help to improve patient safety in the near future.”

The research was jointly funded by the NIHR and UK Research and Innovation as part of their Covid-19 Rapid Response Initiative.

It involved 14 million people registered at general practices across the four nations of the UK.

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