DRIVEN by COVID-19, this past year was marked by uncertainty, anxiety and an exacerbation of mental health issues within the community. While the pandemic’s impact on mental health was somewhat foreseeable, the wide extent of mental distress was less predictable. In addition to pre-existing clients, Cork Counselling Services reported an unprecedented 30% increase in the number of new service users in 2020. Many of these individuals sought mental health support for the first time in their lives.
Furthermore, there was a worsening of mental health in many pre-existing service users. Controlled onsite attendance and a lack of alternative services regrettably resulted in longer waiting times. Like most businesses and services, Cork Counselling Services adapted, by developing tele-support and online counselling options for service users most vulnerable to severe disease. This ensures they can receive timely mental health support from the safety of their homes.
Since 1982, Cork Counselling Services has provided counselling and psychotherapy to all members of society regardless of capacity to pay, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability. This includes individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds, members of the LGBTQI community, homeless individuals, domestic abuse victims, and second and third level students. Many of our service users would not have access to timely mental health support elsewhere. Service users range from 14 years to 75 years of age. On average, we provide counselling to 300+ service users every year, totalling approx. 3000 hours of counselling. We also deliver a suicide prevention outreach programme to hundreds of teenagers in Cork secondary schools annually.
We are a social enterprise, reinvesting all resources generated from our Training Institute into our community based counselling service. The aim of the Training Institute is to educate and train students so that they attain professional counselling standards reflecting best practise. For good reason, we are the longest IACP (Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited course provider in the country.
Mental Health Epidemic
In 2020, there was increase in service users presenting to our service in crisis or feeling suicidal. Such individuals are usually those who present with suicidal thoughts and attempts, self-harming, relationship difficulties, anxiety, isolation, depression, panic attacks, low self-esteem etc. High rates of self-harm in Cork City have been reported in recent years, where the male rate was 1.1 times higher than the national average and the female rate was 38% higher (National Suicide Research Foundation, 2019). Our work in this area aims to intervene quickly and effectively so issues can be dealt with and an escalation and entrenchment of difficulties prevented.
We project that 2021 will be no less distressing for new and ongoing service users.
We have all been affected by the pandemic, though some more than others. It is widely acknowledged that the pandemic has negatively impacted public mental health with some groups more vulnerable to long- term negative outcomes. This includes COVID-19 survivors, individuals from disadvantaged areas, those living in shared accommodation, carers, older individuals, those with underlying health conditions and healthcare workers. Indeed, we have reported a growth in new service users from within these vulnerable groups. A review by medical journal, The Lancet (2020), highlighted that there is likely to be wide-ranging, substantial, and long-lasting psychological and mental health effects.
According to the National Clinical Advisor and Group Lead for Mental Health in the HSE, the mental health burden of this pandemic will surpass anything we have previously experienced. This was evident following past public health crises, e.g., SARS and Ebola, which found high rates of PTSD, clinical anxiety, depression, and difficulty coping amongst affected populations (Sim and Chua 2004; WHO, 2016).
What the future holds
Despite this, the 2021 mental health budget has been reduced to 5% of the overall health budget (from just above 6%). Subsequently, Ireland will spend less than half of what the UK and Germany spend on mental health (12% of their overall health spending).
Against a backdrop of chronic underfunding, Cork Counselling Services has struggled to operate within existing resources. A further decrease in funding will take us out of the frying pan and place us into the fire.
We find ourselves already in the upswell of a looming catastrophe.
Many service users are quite literally at the end of their tether with limited and unreliable access to traditional supports such as family and friends. Regrettably, the disruption caused by COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our mental health, a reality which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Cork Counselling Services will continue to respond to the crisis by developing innovative ways of providing timely mental health support to those who need it most.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Betty Quinlan, MA in Human Resource Management, MA in Applied Psychology, Assoc CIPD, M.Ps.S.I. Betty Quinlan holds a master’s degree in applied psychology, and a second master’s degree in human resource management. Betty was awarded the title of College Scholar as a psychology student in University College Cork. She is also a past recipient of Enable Irelands’ Ann Maloney Bursary in recognition of her academic achievement and commitment to the disability field.
Betty has ten years’ mental health service development and management experience. She has been involved in a variety of research projects which focused on service user experience and participation. Betty has also spearheaded regulatory and statutory compliance in a variety of mental health services. She is passionate about improving mental health service user experience and outcomes.