‘We are dealing with people of all ages’: The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of the population

‘We are dealing with people of all ages’: The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of the population

If people are struggling they can text HELP to 51444. They can also call 1800 247247 at any time.

THE number of people struggling with mental health issues represents a growing problem nationwide, with substantial numbers of people across all age groups struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in more people suffering from mental health problems.

Pieta Cork is one of many organisations throughout the city and county doing remarkable work to counteract the rise in people presenting with mental health issues. It has delivered 20,936 hours of counselling in its Shanakiel centre since 2019 and has helped more than 2,775 people in that time up to March.

Tom McEvoy, funding and advocacy manager, said they are encountering people of all ages who are struggling at present.

“Over the last two years, we have seen great growth in clients coming through the doors. We are dealing with people of all ages. We have seen people from the age of eight to people in their 80s. We are seeing an increase in anxiety, particularly among young people over the last few years.

“This is down to a few things. We are speaking a lot more about mental health which means that it might have become a bigger issue than perhaps it is. People are now seeking help and going for help in an easier way because organisations are now speaking more openly about the services that are freely available and accessible. There is also a lot more trust in society with regards to organisations like us as we can help people,” he said.

Tom McEvoy, Pieta House.
Tom McEvoy, Pieta House.

Mr McEvoy said it is very positive the stigma which used to be associated with people suffering from mental health issues has greatly reduced which allows people to seek professional help and not shy away from voicing their personal issues.

“People are starting to acknowledge that mental health is now an issue. Up to 20 years ago, we never spoke about our mental health in an open forum. It is our belief that in the last 15 years, it has been less stigmatised to speak about our mental health and especially amongst men.

“Subsequently, we have grown hugely in the area. We have more people becoming more confident in what we do and referring them to us. Somebody can lift the phone to Pieta and they can get access to our therapy that way. Alternatively, somebody on behalf of the person who is struggling can lift the phone on their behalf once they are given the OK by the person to represent them. It is called self-referral. We don’t require a hospital or GP referral for anyone to come to Pieta. It is free to access the service without having to go through hoops to access therapy,” he added.

The funding and advocacy manager said that it is apparent that more people are suffering from growing levels of anxiety post-Covid. The huge rise in the number of people seeking help over the Christmas period is a testament to this he said. “There is a higher rate of anxiety in our communities since Covid arrived, unfortunately. We have seen that coming through the doors. We saw a 25% increase in clients last Christmas compared to the previous Christmas which was interesting.

The build-up to the festive season affected a lot of people unfortunately in different ways. Sometimes in Pieta, we often say Christmas can be a quiet time with people out socialising and people often seem happier. This time around, people were very restricted in what they could do. There were a lot more people seeking our help last Christmas.”

Mr McEvoy said their overriding aim is to portray hope for anybody struggling at present. “We always paint and promote a message of hope through all that hopelessness that people cross our doors with. People are genuinely struggling. It can be financial problems, problems with regards to their sexual identity or maybe struggling with a marriage breakup.

“There are so many possible traumatic events that can happen in somebody’s life and people really struggle to deal with that. Sometimes it can also be something small that can bring people to that point. It can be a build-up of things they haven’t addressed over a short term and then eventually this darkness appears as things begin to close in.

“It can be so difficult for people. They just want to get rid of that pain and that horrible darkness that is there. Unfortunately, people turn to suicide because they can’t cope with that pain. Alternatively, maybe their change in behaviour has been spotted by a family member or they might find the strength themselves to turn to somebody and ask for help. It is great when people find the strength to come to us."

Pieta Cork generally conducts a one-hour assessment after a person makes contact with them. Their team of experts will then determine the best strategy ahead for the client. Mr McEvoy said Pieta Cork has had a lot of success stories since they established themselves in Cork. “We came to Cork because there was a real need for us to come to the area. It is a great service provided by the people of Cork.

“We receive 80% of our funding from community fundraising events which include Darkness into Light and 20% from the Government. We are only here because the community wants us to exist. We have received great support from the Cork public. Most people who come to Pieta go on to live full and complete lives. People are in a momentary crisis and they just need to get through that period with professional help and support.

“People always claim Pieta has saved their lives, but we say that they have saved their own lives as they have been brave enough and strong enough to meet the crisis head-on. We give the accolade to the client as they are brave ones. We also help and support families and friends who are finding it difficult to support a person who is struggling. We want to give them skills to be able to deal with that person when they are going through this.

“If anyone is struggling, we will always take the person seriously in a non-judgemental manner and with empathy. We always encourage people to seek help if they can. We also have a text therapy line for people who can’t verbalise how they feel. We try to make it as easy for people to connect with us. If people are feeling vulnerable we want them to reach out. They are making a positive step in the right direction and it could help them through a crisis. People go on to live full lives after this,” he added.

Pieta Cork is currently operating a full-service post-Covid once again. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have developed telephone therapy and video therapy sessions to combat the restrictions. Mr McEvoy said they are back offering face-to-face sessions once again.

“We resorted to telephone therapy when Covid started. We did our therapy via that medium. This new strand proved very successful. We are also offering video therapy now which we never offered before.

“We are open again in all our centres. Face-to-face therapy sessions have also resumed for people. If people are struggling they can text HELP to 51444. We are glad to say that our 1800-247247 number is also available throughout the 365 days,” he added.

Professor Ella Arensman, who works as a chief scientist with the National Suicide Research Foundation based in University College Cork, said that initial figures for the months between March and August 2020 show there was not an increase in suicides nationwide.

“We don’t have the most up-to-date data. However, in the period between March and August 2020 based on the national self-harm registry, we did not see an increase in self-harm presentation to hospital.”

Prof Arensman said this trend continued along a similar trajectory for the remaining months of last year. “Based on the information from the stakeholders we work with, the last six months of last year were at a similar level from the year before. There has been no indication of a significant increase which was generally assumed by the media,” she said.

The professor who is also a member of the international Covid-19 Suicide Prevention Collaboration said that speculation in the media can often add to an increase in anxiety, especially amongst vulnerable young people in particular. “This can be quite harmful to people if they read about growing numbers of suicides on top of Covid. People who are going through severe depression and who perceive the world through very dark glasses may think otherwise, however.

“If they see negative headlines, it can impact hugely on their resilience levels. It is very important for policymakers and the media to keep verifying the data with institutes.

“Interestingly, in all the high-income countries that we have looked at in the international group, we have seen a similar pattern to Ireland during the first phase of Covid-19. It is no coincidence that all these countries that we looked at are also countries with a second national suicide programme,” she said.

The professor accepts that the longer the pandemic lasts with harsh restrictions being imposed on all sections of society, the greater chance there will be an increase in the numbers struggling with mental health problems.

“The longer this lasts the greater the risk that there may further increases in negative mental health conditions, self-harm, and suicide.

“We would be concerned about a rise in the negative impact during these times. For people who are living in tough environments such as domestic violence, Covid would definitely increase their anxiety levels.

“Mental health is a huge issue. Covid has had an impact. Many people have lost a family member or are still struggling to recover. The restrictions and social isolation are very tough on people.

“People of all ages are struggling with mental health issues. We need to make sure that appropriate measures and resources are in place. We need to make sure people have access to mental health supports and effective online internet resources. I think we are in a critical time when supports are very much needed,” she added.

Console Prof. Ella Arensman. Picture by Fergal Phillips
Console Prof. Ella Arensman. Picture by Fergal Phillips

Prof Arensman said that pre-Covid-19, the various stakeholders were already worried about an increase in self-harm among young people.

“Before Covid-19, we had detected an increase in self-harm in young people in the year before Covid. We now need to ensure there are sufficient supports for young people who are struggling with mental health or have severe mental health conditions.

"In Ireland, we did see an increase in self-harm among young people before Covid.”

The professor said the second national suicide prevention strategy, which was implemented in 2016, has proved successful.

“This strategy has ensured Ireland is definitely in line with other countries. We have to make sure that people who have pre-existing mental health conditions should definitely be prioritised in terms of receiving sufficient weekly support.

“We also have to be vigilant with other groups. Healthcare workers for example have gone through several waves of Covid and may not have enough time to process all the challenging situations they have gone through.

“An important recommendation is if people are unsure or struggling is to check in with their GP as verification as to whether supports are needed. We come across people who access mental health support at a very late stage. The earlier they can be helped the better. Early intervention can help prevent clinical depression,” she added.

The professor said that people struggling to adjust to this ‘new normal’ need to attempt to mimic the life work structure they had prior to Covid-19 to ensure they don’t get stuck in a rut.

“People need to get exercise, fresh air, and do plenty of recreational activities. People are at risk of moving into a nonstop online routine be it working from home or homeschooling. This can often bring a greater degree of mental health issues and chronic fatigue,” she said.

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