Last reviewed 30 June 2020

The stress, disruption and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic is having a severe mental health impact. More people are being trained to help those feeling suicidal. The key message, as part of a wider drive to reassure those under duress, is that they are not alone and help is not far away, writes Jon Herbert.

Even under normal circumstances, people suffering from stress often find it difficult to talk about their problems or cope with the pressures they face, and often feel “defeated” or “trapped”. This can be a very early precursor to suicide. However, evidence shows that, with timely intervention, the spiral into suicidal thoughts can sometimes be prevented.

A supportive network at home and work can make a crucial difference in coping with current social and health anxieties made worse for many by financial uncertainty, poverty, unemployment, trauma and inequality.

The figures on mental ill health

One in four people in the UK have, or will experience, mental health problems, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says. Most are mild, short-term and can be treated by GPs. Public Health England (PHE) research shows that 83% of us have experienced early signs of poor mental health in the last 12 months.

Mental health is defined as how we think, feel and behave. Mental ill health can include anxiety, depression and difficulties in dealing with disturbing events such as bereavement. Work-related issues can aggravate pre-existing conditions.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been given suicide prevention training recently during lockdown by the Zero Suicide Alliance, a collaboration of NHS trusts, charities, businesses and individuals which aims to spot the signs that show a person needs help. It follows concerns about the mental health of workers at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

The online training lasts for approximately 20 minutes and guides participants through the help they can give to someone who may be considering ending their life. It also addresses the stigma around suicide and encourages open dialogue. A shorter introduction module takes under 10 minutes.

The importance of work

The mental health charity Mind says that although employment may be changing, work can be good for mental health as a source of income, for its a sense of reality, contact and friendships, a steady routine, plus opportunities to achieve and contribute.

The less positive side can be stress, poor relationships with co-workers, inappropriate work, feeling stigmatised, feeling unable to discuss problems, plus worries about returning to work after time off.

A key point here is that work-related stress and mental health problems often occur together and can share very similar symptoms. The main differences are severity, duration and impact on everyday life. Causes and treatment differ. People are affected in different ways.

The basics on supporting mental health at work

To look more deeply at the work/good mental health connection, the Government commissioned Lord Dennis Stevenson and Mind CEO, Paul Farmer, in 2017 to review the support that employers can provide in the workplace.

The result was Thriving at Work, published in 2017. This was supported by the practical advice in Mind’s How to Implement the Thriving at Work Mental Health Standards in Your Workplace, which defines a framework of six “core standards” that companies of all sizes can adopt. These were to:

  • produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan

  • promote mental health awareness at work

  • encourage open conversations and offer support and workplace adjustments where required

  • ensure good working conditions, opportunities for development and a healthy work-life balance

  • train line managers in effective management practices and communication

  • monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

In October 2019, Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS launched a new platform to help people look after their own mental health and wellbeing, as well as to support that of others. Every Mind Matters outlines simple steps to better prepare for life’s ups and downs and even suggests apps that can be downloaded to help with different aspects of mental and physical wellbeing.

The HSE makes the point that even if time needs to be taken off work, most people recover and return to employment. However, in many cases they return before feeling 100% ready for “business as usual”. This is a key area where employers can help in planning a gradual easing in, with support and some responsibility changes.

If they do identify a member of staff who is struggling with their mental health, line managers should focus on making reasonable workplace adjustments rather than understanding the diagnosis, says the HSE.

Also, employees off sick with no contact from their manager can feel isolated and forgotten, which makes it much harder to return to work. The advice is to keep them in the loop work-wise and socially throughout their absence, while remembering that people in a crisis may not be able to think clearly or take in complex information.

Suicide prevention: WAIT

Some 800,000 people take their own lives each year and many more attempt to, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Which is why a key message from 2019’s World Mental Health Day was for anyone coming into contact with a possibly suicidal person is to “WAIT”.

  • Watch for signs of distress and uncharacteristic behaviour.

  • Ask “are you having suicidal thoughts?”

  • It will pass: emphasise that suicidal feelings will recede with time.

  • Talk to others — encourage the person to seek help from a GP, counsellor or health professional.

World Mental Health Day is a programme launched in 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH). WFMH president, Dr Ingrid Daniels, says Covid-19 has affected the mental health of millions of people.

She adds, “We know that the levels of anxiety, fear, isolation, social distancing and restrictions, uncertainty and emotional distress experienced have become widespread as the world struggles to bring the virus under control and to find solutions.”

However, she also believes that a 2020 call to action of “mental health as a human right… will be strengthened through our alliances, collaborations and partnerships to ensure that investment in mental health is prioritised, particularly during this time within the context of Covid-19.”

World Mental Health Day 2020 on 10 October will press home the theme “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment — Greater Access”.

Health Assured

To provide your employees with access to a confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.