When the UK entered lockdown in March, we were perhaps naïve to think this would be a short-term problem. It wasn’t until the weeks dragged on, with every daily briefing becoming more dire with every new slide, that the full impact of coronavirus on individuals and loved ones became all too real.

Mental health has been neglected throughout lockdown. While people have had to make do with their new normal, the government has also been naïve in its stewardship. We were told we could exercise once a day, a moment to claw back our humanity. It seemed that the ministers behind their podiums could only give that single act of daily exercise as an answer to the nation’s mental health problems.

And yet, there have been surveys, reports and statements from clinical bodies all suggesting that coronavirus has deeply damaged the country’s mental health. The charity Rethink Mental Illness released a report on 4 June responding to some of the system’s biggest problems through the pandemic, focusing particularly on severe illness sufferers.

The charity calls on the Government and NHS to prioritise mental health going forward, during what they report as a “mental health epidemic”.  This fits not only with repeated stories from mental illness sufferers but an international perspective too. Last month, the UN and WHO presented their own report which called for action to address growing experience of mental hardship.

For mental health trusts and support providers, coronavirus has only exacerbated a much deeper weakness in the UK’s provision. Cuts to budgets, failure to support clinicians and patients, and a continual weak message on the issue were already a burning injustice within the system. The All-Party Parliamentary Group’s 2018 review of NHS plans revealed that sufferers were stumbling into crisis due to a lack of core community support. It recommended ‘urgent’ investment in core services.

Anyone who’s been through the mental health system will know how difficult it is. You feel corralled into definitions and schemes that may not suit your needs, or given so little time to talk that you feel like a burden rather than a patient. This is not the fault of clinicians and staff who show no lack of dedication to their roles. Where’s their Thursday-night clap? Where’s our empathy?

The Labour shadow minister for mental health, Rosena Allen-Khan, has urged the government to put forward plans for trusts in place urgently. All these calls for urgency are not, and never have been, matched with action. NHS Providers are predicting a surge in the reliance on mental health services which is already undermined by the critical underinvestment which the APPG from 2018 reported. A perfect storm set to cause more woe.

As weary, depressed travellers of the mental health system, we’re used to being disappointed. Which is why any forward plan by the government and NHS must be written firmly into law. A new mental health act to invest money into regional and local trusts, establish better links between first-approach and psychiatric care, and build more capacity for patients. A lack of time and money limits the care that patients desperately need.

The government’s approach to the mental cost of coronavirus is a rigid, predictable culture which we all must eradicate. Believing that a walk would help rid years of self-loathing, or that joining a support group might end flashbacks and paranoia. It’s a basic, unempathetic mindset that we might see in a loved one who will never understand why we suffer like we do.

Like many things on the government’s plate, the system must start treating us as individuals with complex problems and demons – not statistics. Coronavirus will likely add thousands to the waiting lists for difficult conditions that have been birthed by weeks of isolation, grief and depression. Instead of reaching targets and quotas, a post-coronavirus system should put the patient at the core of its design.

The people of the UK are not as homogenous as one should think. Our mental health needs will vary. Our experience of lockdown will be unique, based on our own personal circumstances. While we’ve all had to stick it together, coronavirus has changed our lives in its own bespoke way.

As such, any mental health plan must also realise this. Instead of a blanket approach to administration, a regional or local system will be much better equipped to support cases. If central targets dictate the way trusts work, their patients will suffer.

We are waiting for the moment when we can hug again. That warmth, a pause in time when the world’s sorrows are far away. The human cost of coronavirus can be measured by sad deaths and our own personal cost.

The government must realise that lukewarm words are not a substitute for empathy-driven governance. Any mental health plan that materialises must reflect the needs of the patient – not the needs of the budget books.

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