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Eoin Barry: Essential that plans are in place to improve community mental health teams at this time

Over the last couple of months we have all become familiar with the concept of flattening the curve.

The importance of keeping the number of people requiring our health service below capacity.

The government has rapidly increased capacity in our hospitals and by sticking to social distancing; we have all reduced the numbers needing a hospital bed.

Sadly, many people have lost their lives and we will all have to continue our efforts for many months ahead.

Now that hospital capacity has been improved we must plan for a potential surge in those requiring assistance from mental health services.

Hopefully, this extra capacity won’t be required. However it is essential that plans are in place to improve community mental health teams, help lines and local community services.

The social distancing rules in Ireland and around the world have been in effect longer and are more restrictive than any other similar event in history.

These rules have changed our work, family and social lives beyond all recognition. At the best of times, loneliness and social isolation can effect peoples mental health.

Social distancing has greatly reduced the number of people we see each week, in particular for those cocooning.

Many of us will have experienced an increase in stress and anxiety during the pandemic. For most people, this will reduce as we adapt to the changes and as restrictions are slowly reduced.

Others will require additional support, from accessing a helping to attending their GP or local mental health service. At present it’s impossible to say what number will require this additional support.

However, investment in researching the mental health impact of Covid-19 is essential to help services plan for the next 18-24 months.

Services are changing their practices to provide mental health services while maintain social distancing. Despite this effort, GPs have reported less people attending practices for non Covid-19 related issues and some people may be more reluctant to seek help.

This could create problems in a range of health care settings later in the year and it’s important that people access medical appointments and assistance as they normally would.

The economic impact of Covid-19 has led to widespread unemployment and an increase in financial pressures, both of which result in an increased risk of mental health problems.

To address the economic fallout, a strong social welfare system will be required, along with access to a quality health service and adequate housing provisions and protections.

Around Ireland many people are experiencing the loss of loved ones. Ireland has its own traditional ways of coping with grief, with families relying on unity, their community and company for comfort in their grief.

In a world of socially distanced funerals, mourning has become an ever more difficult time, a particularly cruel aspect of the pandemic.

It is impossible to underestimate the challenges that frontline healthcare staff are facing. They continue to care for the most unwell patients with great kindness and professionalism.

Throughout this they have to manage an increased work load while dealing with their own fears of becoming unwell themselves. Some support and counseling services have been put in place for staff on the front line of the COVID epidemic but this is not the case for all.

The need for high quality PPE for frontline staff has become a highly politicized and important discussion point. We must also ensure that supports for key workers’ mental health is at the fore of these conversations.

We also need to look at the pay and conditions of all key workers, not just those working in health care but also people working in supermarkets, cleaners, public transport, and so many other crucial roles. .

Tragically, we know that domestic violence and child protections concerns will increase during this period. Tusla and services for domestic violence remain open and people should access them if they need to.

They will need additional staff and resources to meet increased demand for services. Developing these services and training staff takes time and there must be a clear roadmap for how this will be implemented.

Clarity is needed for student social care workers and social workers on finishing their courses so that they are ready to take up posts in the summer.

Our exam students are facing unique challenges this year. For junior certificate students, months of preparation for state exams were replaced with classroom-based exams and assessments in September.

This is a difficult challenge for all students. For those that were planning to leave school after the exams and start apprenticeships the lack of clarity continues.

Leaving cert students have faced months of uncertainty and many students are finding the changes to the exams incredibly stressful.

Clarity on timetables and the start of college and plc courses should be provided as soon as possible. Extra supports, particularly counseling and career guidance, should be provided for students and the fees for this year’s exams should be removed.

Family life is very different now than it was at the start of March. Families are adapting to the change of people working from home and student completing online lessons.

The strict rules on when people can leave the home can add strain to family relationships. With everyone being in the same house, tempers can fray more easily, people can struggle to have space to themselves and people may need to share devices and computers for school and work.

This crisis has shown how interconnected we all truly are. Our communities have responded to the crisis, provided care for people that needed it.

Our frontline health care workers and key workers have stepped up and bravely provided essential services.

With a careful strategy now we can meet the mental health needs of those that require it, improving and developing the specialist services.

In particular grief counseling and support for people bereaved during this period. We can also create a society that promotes positive mental health, where people feel encouraged to seek support and where we all look out for one another.

The crisis has shown people at their best. There is no reason we can’t continue to support one another in the difficult days ahead.

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