COVID-19 First Wave - Impact on Health and Wellbeing
Approximately 22,000 people, or 4% of the Somerset population, were advised by the NHS to shield to reduce risk of exposure to coronavirus. Local agencies identified other potentially vulnerable groups, so in total 89,000 were offered support during lockdown.
On a population-wide basis, the negative mental health effects of the pandemic are likely to last much longer than its physical health impacts. The effects of physical distancing, social isolation, and lockdown on individual mental wellbeing, as well as the loss of a loved one, increase the mental health challenges for the Somerset population. People’s mental health is being affected by social distancing measures and their economic consequences.
Support and resources to enable people to look after their wellbeing have been a critical part of the COVID response. Levels of anxiety rose considerably at the point of lockdown with 50% of the UK reporting high anxiety during lockdown week.
Issues raised by clients of two Somerset charities – Mind in Somerset and Citizen’s Advice – provide an indication of factors contributing to high levels of anxiety. These include loneliness, debt, employment and physical health. Both organisations also reported large increases in calls concerning housing and family and relationships. These mirror the national patterns.
There are some early indications that severe mental illness may have increased during lockdown. In 2020 up till the end of May, hospital admissions for deliberate self-harm were much higher than the average for the previous five years. Local monitoring of suspected suicides provides timely data and so far into the pandemic has not provided an indication that rates are increasing. Low level mental health problems such as anxiety and depression have increased with Mindline in Somerset taking 500-700 calls per week.
Figure 1: Top reasons for calling Somerset helplines (Somerset Citizens' Advice Bureau (left), Mindline in Somerset (right)
While many of the changes have negatively impacted on mental health and wellbeing, some societal changes were positive. Benefits include more time with household members, slower pace of life and for those who could work remotely less travel. Increased community cohesion in many areas of Somerset, as well as the use of digital to keep in touch with friends and family, positively affected wellbeing.
From the beginning of the pandemic, there was professional concern, that COVID restrictions would increase the risk of domestic abuse, due to restricted movement, added stresses for families and limited opportunity to access support physically or remotely. In recognition of this, a large-scale local communications campaign ‘#Nocloseddoors2020’ was launched. As a result, hits on the Somerset Survivors website increased from 1,999 average monthly hits in 2019 to 4,990 today.
In Somerset, since March 2020 there have been fewer referrals to Somerset’s Integrated Domestic Abuse Service than compared to the weekly average in 2019/20. Nevertheless, in the same timeframe, reports of domestic abuse incidents to the police continue to be at higher rates than the previous year with a weekly average of 90, compared to 70 last year. In addition, feedback from specialist staff working with victims suggest the severity and complexity of the abuse experienced has increased, meaning that victims need more intensive support for longer. As anticipated, there has been an increase in disclosures from children experiencing abuse since September, when schools reopened fully (albeit very small numbers).
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