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20th May 2021

The Coronavirus Pandemic and Safeguarding Mental Health

On Saturday, May 8th, the annual ‘Darkness into Light’ event took place at dawn, despite the wintry weather conditions across the country.

The first ‘Darkness into Light’ event took place in 2009, with approximately 400 people taking part. Participants did not gather this year, due to social restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they donated online, then walked, swam, cycled, or just shared a sunrise moment. Over 140,000 people took part, raising almost €6.5 million for Pieta House, a national suicide-prevention charity.

Pieta House offers professional counselling services to people who are in suicidal distress or are self-harming. It also supports those who have a loved one at risk of self-harm or suicide and people who have been bereaved through suicide. In the wider arena, Pieta works with schools in combating stigma: helping students develop coping skills and encouraging help-seeking behaviours.

There is a wealth of international literature suggesting that along with premature deaths caused by the virus, the negative consequences of the COVID -19 pandemic also include a significant impact on the psychological wellbeing of the Irish population. In May 2020, an article in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine¹ explored the likely psychological impact that repeated waves of COVID-19 could have. Along with the economic impacts of the disease, it suggested the likelihood of relapse among people with existing mental health conditions would rise, and that people with e.g. eating disorders and Bi-polar disorder might experience interruptions to care, as health services become stretched to meet the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

In April 2021, Professor Ella Arensman was appointed to the position of Professor of Public Mental Health at University College, Cork. The creation of this new role is evidence of burgeoning awareness of the need to place mental health (historically, the ‘poor relation’ of general medicine) in a position of prominence. When appointed, Professor Arensman stated in her speech that the coronavirus pandemic is driving 'unprecedented demand' for suicide prevention and mental health services in Ireland.

A recent HSE report refers to a coming ‘tsunami of mental health need’ once COVID-19 recedes. The Irish Times warned recently that Ireland’s mental health system is not prepared for a crisis – ‘because it was already in crisis, before the Pandemic’².

These warnings concern us all. It is vitally important that health and social care staff working in the community remain vigilant to indicators of deteriorating mental health.

Safeguarding vulnerable people from abuse is already high on the healthcare agenda, in terms of the need for awareness and for staff training. However, it is also important that we, as care providers and professionals are cognizant of the need to 'Safeguard Mental Health’- our own, and that of our clients and that we advocate for the development and implementation of training programmes designed to raise awareness of mental health issues and the support available.

Support Contact Details:

  • Pieta House: 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Samaritans: 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware: 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • ALONE: 0818 222 024 (for older people)
  • Teen-Line Ireland: 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline: 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

¹O'Connor, (2020). Mental health impacts of COVID-19 in Ireland and the need for a secondary care, mental health service response. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1017/ipm.2020.64

²Freyne, P. (23/01/2021). Ireland’s mental health pandemic: From crisis to emergency. The Irish Times.

Sheena Cunnington MSc RGN RMA

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

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