'I reached breaking point': How Covid hit our mental health
- Credit: Nikki Jefferson
Nikki Jefferson rarely wakes up before the afternoon.
The 22-year-old supermarket worker, from Beccles, lives 40 miles away from her nearest family and was already dealing with the loss of her unborn child just months before the pandemic hit.
She was so isolated during lockdown that she tried to take her own life.
“In the supermarket we were the first point of contact for a lot of people, and there was a lot of frustrations being taken out on us," she said. "Then coming home to an empty house was very isolating.
“It all just ramped up from there. There was a lot of time to think about things in my mind. I reached breaking point and tried to take my own life in March.”
Speaking as part of our ongoing series into the impact of coronavirus on health inequalities, clinical psychologist Beth Mosely, from the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust, said Covid had placed an inevitable strain on mental health services.
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"We can’t refer 50pc of the population (for mental health services)," she said. "My small team has supported 3,200 people since September, and 1,000 of those have been face-to-face.
"People at higher risk won't come to services until they are at crisis point. We’re trying to be more embedded in the community, where these high risk families are."
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Ms Jefferson is now on a waiting list and although she has been prescribed antidepressants, she says it has been a struggle waiting so long to start treatment.
“My life is on hold,” she said. “We all know about the physical side of things and how it affects people financially in terms of putting food on the table, and that’s important. But mental health is also important, and sometimes it feels like I’m being ignored.”
NHS data from last year reveals 75pc more people from poorer areas of Norfolk and Waveney contacted NHS mental health services compared to people from richer areas.
Of 45,610 contacts, almost 29,000 came from areas with higher levels of deprivation, while just under a quarter came from the worst 20pc deprived.
The income of the region's mental health service, the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), grew in the seven years leading up to the pandemic by £44m.
But despite the funding increase, GP and clinical director of Norfolk Primary Care Network Dr Jeanine Smirl said mental health services were "completely overrun".
"Support networks have vanished overnight, and that has been really tough on people," she said. "A lot of staff are unwell themselves too. We are running quite thin."
GPs in the county have reported a huge surge in patients presenting with mental health problems and say they are worried that services will struggle to cope.
Tim Morton, chair of the Norfolk and Waveney Local Medical Committee and Beccles GP, said an increase in depression and anxiety in young people had been a particular feature of the pandemic.
“Young people are worried about their futures and job prospects, so are dealing with a lot of anxiety,” he said.
“It all has an increasing effect because we have again an under-resourced mental health service that is under strain.
"We’ve also got a shortage of GPs and district nurses, who are the very people you want to have available right now, and those who are available are at risk of burn out."
James Wyllie is a GP in Great Yarmouth, home to some of the most deprived areas in the county. He said changing systems meant it was harder for people to access services earlier.
“We see people in the surgery who come in having problems with their sleep,” he said.
“Then we dig a little deeper and hear this story of personal or domestic catastrophe. In the old days people would see their family doctor and say they are struggling, but we are now so hard to get at that we see less of that.
“Doctors end up seeing patients further down the funnel towards collapse.”
Mandy Croxall lives in Dereham. The 49-year-old mum of two is another who struggled with a long wait for treatment after developing mental health problems during lockdown.
She developed severe anxiety and suffered panic attacks every night for months. It got so bad that she started feeling suicidal.
“I had to go on medication,” she said. “I found that all I wanted to do was sleep all the time. I’ve never had anything like that before.
“A big part of it was the fear of not being able to see my children. I have two. They live about 15 miles away from me. But even that was too much.”
Mrs Croxall was able to pay for private counselling after struggling to access public mental health services. She is now back at work but says the experience has scarred her.
Vicki Markiewicz, executive director of Norfolk mental health service providers Change Grow Live, said Covid was already widening social inequalities which would lead to a greater demand for drug and alcohol services.
“Substance misuse, social inequality, and poor health – mental and physical – are all connected," she said.
Fears are also growing that people with eating disorders have been badly affected by the pandemic. A recent NHS England survey revealed people from the lowest income households were 7pc more likely to have eating disorders than those from the richest families.
Norfolk-based eating disorder helpline Beat has seen its calls increase by 140pc between February and November. It said it supported 7,420 people in November, a 202pc rise on the same month last year.
Rebecca Willgress, from the charity, said: “People’s support networks fell apart when lockdown started in March. Treatment had to be delayed.
“To put the surge in perspective our original target was to support 3,000 people a month.
“The numbers have carried on increasing month on month, and we’re not expecting it to go down anytime soon.”
Tomorrow: How Covid has affected our physical health