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Therapists and teachers warn of looming mental health crisis

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“Talking therapies” services run by the NHS will be overwhelmed in the autumn when almost 500,000 people who did not get treated during the lockdown finally seek help, according to a major therapy provider. The warning comes as teachers predict a wellbeing crisis among children when schools return full-time in September.

Analysis by Ieso Digital Health claims there will be “an explosion” this autumn in the number of people being referred by their GP for treatment for anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The sharp rise in people suffering psychological conditions during the pandemic will leave England’s 54 specialist NHS mental health trusts struggling to cope.

The NHS has treated far fewer patients than usual since March under its Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which usually gives people face to face counselling. Before Covid-19 struck about 150,000 people a month were referred to IAPT services in England, either by their GP or by seeking help directly themselves.

When lockdown began many NHS services were suspended and many people either became afraid to access care as normal or stayed away in order not to bother the NHS. Research by Ieso shows that in April – the first full month of lockdown – fewer than 60,000 referrals were made. It estimated that by the end of September just over 470,000 fewer people than would have been expected will have been referred since the start of lockdown. If all are referred for care in October, when IAPT services reopen, then that would leave services facing over four times the usual number of referrals.

“One reason referrals to IAPT dropped during the pandemic is that people who were at home because of the lockdown were really worried about having a phone or video consultation rather than a face to face appointment,” said Sarah Bateup, Ieso’s chief clinical officer, who is also an experienced cognitive behavioural therapist.

“Other people didn’t seek a referral because they didn’t want to go to their GP, or decided not to make a fuss because the NHS was so busy. Others were more worried about Covid and keeping their family safe than they were about seeking treatment for anxiety, depression or OCD.”

Ross O’Brien, the digital innovation director at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, one of the country’s biggest mental health trusts, said: “There is the real risk that the mental health impact of Covid-19 will be more than the physical effects of the virus. This, coupled with the expected huge increase in IAPT referrals, means we are seeing a very worrying trend.

“Patient referral rates have been alarmingly low since lockdown across IAPT services in England. In London alone we have seen up to a 50% reduction in referrals in March and April,” he…

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