Exploring Access to Mental Health and Primary Care Services for People With Severe Mental Illness During the COVID-19 Restrictions

People with severe mental ill health (SMI) experience profound health inequalities and reduced life expectancy. What has been their experience in getting support from health services during the COVID-19 restrictions? The OWLS study team examined access to mental health services during the pandemic restrictions through a survey of 367 people with bipolar and psychosis disorders.

Most people with SMI reported that they had been able to access support from community mental health services or primary care, and a relatively high proportion said they were satisfied with the support they received. However, a notable minority (43%) of the survey respondents were not confident that support would be available should they need it. Our Lived Experience Advisory Panel suggested that for many people with mental health needs, having confidence that support would be available if needed, was important for people's well-being.

For those people with SMI who were already being supported by mental health services, almost a quarter thought they might need more support. This was for a variety of reasons including declining mental health, putting off help-seeking or experiencing insufficient support before the pandemic. This has implications for demand on services moving forward.

The biggest change in services was the increasing use of phone and video call support, and a reduction in face-to-face appointments. Nearly half of those using mental health services found this change acceptable or even preferred it. However, participants were more likely to report that they had received all the support they needed, when seen in person.

“While most of the people with SMI who answered the survey were satisfied with the mental health support they had received, we must not lose sight of those who had not got the support they wanted or had not sought help, even when their mental health had deteriorated. It was reassuring that remote care was acceptable to many, but there are also risks that it could increase inequalities in access to services”Liz Newbronner.

For more information on this work, please contact Ruth Wadman, Mental and Physical Multimorbidity Theme Manager, Yorkshire and Humber ARC - ruth.wadman@york.ac.uk.