How mental health charities like Improving Lives are responding to impact of COVID-19

Victoria Burrows is currently on secondment at Lloyds Bank Foundation from Improving Lives; a mental health charity in Nottingham, where she is CEO. Here, she writes on the impact of COVID-19 on service delivery, the mental health of those they support and the importance of raising awareness of shortage of funding during and after Mental Health Awareness Week.

At Improving Lives, we support people with complex health and social needs. For those who don’t speak the language of social care, this means we help those having difficulty managing their mental health and help them rebuild their lives after the subsequent impact this has had on them, for example in managing their finances, employment, offending and loneliness.

While the crisis has affected us all in different ways, for those relying on our services, COVID-19 and lack of social contact has added additional challenges at a time when they are already struggling with their mental health needs. Weekly phone calls help, but others need to talk to their support worker daily.

To help, we have provided basic pay-as-you-go phones to those who do not have one – tablets and Wi-Fi are beyond most people’s budgets. For some, a routine is vital and a chat about ways to formulate new routines and respond to the ‘new normal’ is much needed. These calls are a chance for them to offload and talk about how they are feeling that day.

We have also continued to run our weekly social groups, which, thanks to video and conference calling, have now gone virtual. People who need this service have been brave enough to try something new – technology is really scary if you are lacking in confidence about using it or have worries about its security.

New people joining the service have had an altogether different experience. Normally, service provision starts with a home visit or meeting where the person is comfortable to start building a trusting relationship. This is no longer an option - just calls and texts, with the promise that a face to face visit will happen as soon as it is possible.

 

If we are no longer here to offer support to people with mental health difficulties because of the immediate crisis, shortage of funding and little support from the government, who will they turn to for support? They are the voices that are heard the least during Mental Health Awareness Week and perhaps the ones we should be focussing on.

Victoria Burrows

There have been some small positives: free online access to museums for those who can’t get out and could only dream of going has been wonderful; the less busy streets for some feel safer and they are able to go out when they couldn’t before. Phone counselling has helped some people who struggled to physically attend pre-COVID19 either due to lack of transport options or health conditions – we have been told the lack of face to face contact is a plus for some as they can be more open. People have looked after each other and had time to think about being kind to neighbours.

Impact of COVID-19

However, the impact of the COVID-19 runs deeper. The crisis has significantly impacted our ability to continue to provide the vital services our beneficiaries rely on now and beyond the immediate crisis.

To put it into context, services like the ones we provide at Improving Lives have bridged the gap when access to statutory mental health services has severely declined. Ten years ago, if you had struggles with your mental health you could see someone in your local mental health team quite quickly and treatment would follow. Now you might wait up to 18 months for an assessment. If we are no longer here to offer support to people with mental health difficulties because of the immediate crisis, shortage of funding and little support from the government, who will they turn to for support? They are the voices that are heard the least during Mental Health Awareness Week and perhaps the ones we should be focussing on.

What happens next

What are my colleagues, and some other charities I have spoken to, thinking about now? It is time to think of ways we can work better together with the funding that is out there. Some of our other main concerns are:

  1. How can we innovate to make technology more accessible for all – more affordable and understandable?
  2. Funding for next year when a couple of grants run out – what will the funding landscape look like as demand for services and grants is bound to increase?
  3. How can leaders of charities plan when so much is still unknown?
  4. How can we build on the amazing groups of volunteers that have sprung up?

If I can have an ask for this week – it’s that you use your voice not for talking about mental health awareness, we really are all aware… but to ask for funding for services so people who rely on them don’t get left behind.

Victoria will chair a webinar, ‘Adapting mental health services during lockdown’ on Thursday 21 May for Mental Health Awareness Week. Register your place here.