CEO Blog | How can Scotland’s mental health recover from coronavirus?

25th August 2020

Ahead of next week's Programme for Government, SAMH CEO Billy Watson talks about the challenges the country faces in terms of mental health following the pandemic in his latest blog.

The last few months have been extraordinary. We’ve seen restrictions placed on our liberty unlike any we’ve ever known, and we’ve faced a new and unpredictable illness that as yet has no cure.

The long-term effects on our mental health are not yet known, but at SAMH we have been thinking a great deal about the areas that now require attention and investment. Above all, we know the mental health system was struggling before coronavirus. We need to be ambitious in our thinking: restarting, renewing or maintaining is not going to be enough.

As a starting point, the needs of people with existing mental health problems deserve immediate and greater attention. There has, rightly, been a focus on population-level mental health in the last few months, as we grapple with the impact that coronavirus and lockdown have had on us all.  However, there is no doubt that people who were already experiencing mental health problems have been hard hit, with the withdrawal of both services and informal supports, and uncertainty about when these will be able to resume.

We can’t rely exclusively on technology to provide the support needed. Recently, SAMH surveyed around 450 of the people who use our services, and a quarter said they did not have access to or know how to use technology. Digital services can help many people – but we can’t risk leaving people without support simply because they struggle with technology. Therefore capacity building, investment and understanding will all be required as further digital steps are taken.

We also need to make sure we have a properly joined-up system. The support and love for the NHS in recent months has been fantastic, and utterly deserved. But many people with mental health problems receive the bulk of their support through statutory and third sector social care providers. These services have been under severe strain for many years and never more than in the past few months, and this is likely to worsen as the financial impact of recent events begins to take effect. We must see the NHS and social care as two interlinked parts of the same structure, and place equal emphasis on each.

We should also plan for likely issues that have been stored up by lockdown. For example, far fewer young people were referred to specialist mental health services between April and June this year than we would normally expect, and it’s likely there’s been a similar reduction in adults being referred for psychological therapies. This means a build-up of unmet need, which will need targeted resources and effort to address.

It’s not all about mental health services: we need to use all the tools we have to tackle mental health problems, and that includes physical activity and sport. Being active can be highly effective in maintaining good mental health, managing poor mental health and helping prevent milder issues from escalating. Indeed, we have seen during lockdown how many people turned to walking, running and cycling to help manage their physical and mental health. We must make working with sports clubs, council and leisure trust facilities and sporting governing bodies an urgent priority to ensure we make the most of the opportunity to use this accessible and often free way of supporting Scotland’s mental health.  

There is a lot to do, and it won’t be easy. But we have to put mental health at the heart of all our recovery plans: there is no other option.

You might be feeling lower, more stress or anxious at the moment. Even during these unprecedented times, there are things we can all to do protect our mental health. SAMH has developed a coronavirus mental health information hub where you find information, tips and resources which you may find useful.