The Guardian view on mental health: this emergency requires a response | Editorial

As Britain unlocks, we ignore psychiatrists’ warnings about the psychological impact of Covid at our peril

The toll on the UK’s mental health caused by the pandemic is becoming much clearer. The dismaying, if unsurprising, news as shops and businesses reopen is that fears that Covid would result in higher levels of mental illness have been borne out. What is particularly disturbing about the warning issued by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on Friday is that it most strongly applies to children. There were 80,226 more under-18s referred to NHS mental health services in England between April and December last year than in the same period in 2019. The number of children and young people needing emergency care rose 20% to 18,269, while the number of adults needing emergency treatment reached a record high of 159,347.

Parity of esteem for mental health was supposedly enshrined in law in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. But the promise was not fulfilled. Five years later, Theresa May named the lack of support for people with mental illnesses as one of the “burning injustices” that she hoped her premiership would address. But the prospect of measures such as legal limits on waiting times for talking therapies, which have long been in place for A&E and other hospital treatments, appears more remote than ever. Instead, research consistently points to the enormous difficulty of accessing services. Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, published analysis showing that more than a third of those referred to child and adolescent mental health services received no treatment; another third waited more than a year.

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