By Tim Lamden, Press Officer at Pro Bono Economics

In the 20 years since the Mental Health Foundation launched its annual week-long awareness campaign, the collective wellbeing of the nation has never been tested like it has during the pandemic.

We know that the number of adults who experienced some form of depression at the start of the year (21%) was more than double the number observed before the pandemic (10%). And the wellbeing of women has been especially affected over the course of the pandemic – as has always been the case for the main caregivers of the sick and children in society during outbreaks of infectious disease – with women experiencing twice the scale of decline in mental wellbeing recorded by men.

Dealing with the fallout from more than a year of unprecedented upheaval should be a national priority and we will almost certainly hear encouraging words to this effect in political promises about “building back better”. There may even be more cash made available to support interventions. But applying more than a sticking plaster requires policymakers to understand the nuance of the problem and recognise the way in which different groups are affected.

Over the past year, PBE has worked closely with Our Time - a charity supporting and raising awareness of young people affected by parental mental illness. This week, I caught up with Our Time CEO Dympna Cunnane to find out about the impact of the pandemic on the “hard-to-reach families” the charity supports. She told me: “We have seen a lot of parents who have been hospitalised during the pandemic. I was talking to a family just last week who have been badly affected. The mother has three children and her depression has got worse over the pandemic. That has led to her daughter becoming very quiet and withdrawn, which caused the mother more stress, and this had a knock-on effect on the rest of the family.”

The number of young people living with or caring for a parent with a mental illness is estimated at 2.9 million – with seven in ten thought to be at risk of developing mental health problems themselves without intervention. For Dympna and Our Time, the biggest challenge they face is getting this particular demographic recognised within a complex landscape of mental health care provision.

“You would be amazed how little this is spoken about by professionals,” said Dympna. “What professionals often say is they don’t feel equipped to speak to children and parents about this issue. We also need this group of young people to be recognised in policy terms. Unless this very vulnerable group are recognised by policymakers, local authorities will never have the funds to sustain the work.”

The sharpening in demand for Our Time’s expertise over the course of the pandemic is a trend that has been repeated across the social sector. That charity resources have been hit is well understood – all those cancelled fundraising events and closed charity stores have had a significant effect on income in the sector. But, unlike the bars and restaurants that have faced similar turmoil, many charities have simultaneously had to deal with a surge in demand for their help. And it’s a demand spike that isn’t set to fall anytime soon. It is likely that the events of the last year will have long lasting consequences for the sector and for the country more generally. We will be reporting next week on the results of our latest Covid Charity Tracker, which paints a concerning picture of a sector left in a precarious position.

As this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week comes to a close, it presents an opportune moment to reflect on where we are as a nation and look closer at the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated an already vast challenge. It is vital the country rises to that challenge but, as Our Time can attest, that means recognising the nuance in our policy response. It also means identifying and supporting the vital work undertaken by myriad social sector organisations – Our Time and many others like it – up and down the country.

15 May 2021