People living with severe mental illness at heightened risk of relapse or crisis during pandemic

04 June 2020

Rethink Mental Illness says improved access to mental health services must be prioritised as the country continues to navigate out of lockdown in a new briefing published today which highlights the acute impact of the pandemic on people living with severe mental illness.

A survey of over 1,400 people by the charity in April and May found that in the initial stages of lockdown people living with pre-existing mental illness were heavily impacted by the changes to formal mental health services.

Additionally, the wider implications of lockdown, such as sharp, sudden changes to routine and the removal of coping mechanisms such as restricted movement, seeing loved ones or attending peer support groups also contributed to a deterioration in people’s mental health.

The survey found that:

  • Over three-quarters (79%) of people said that their mental health had got worse or much worse as a result of the pandemic and the measures to contain it.
  • Forty two percent (42%) said their mental health was worse because they were getting less support from mental health services.
  • When asked to consider how support from mental health services had changed overall during the pandemic, 58% said that support had worsened overall.

Today’s briefing, ‘Access to NHS mental health services for people with severe mental illness’, is the first in a series of thematic briefings based on the findings of that survey.

Rethink Mental Illness hopes its COVID-19 Briefings will be a useful resource for government and NHS to understand what challenges people living with severe mental illness are facing as a result of the pandemic and inform their thinking accordingly.

Danielle Hamm, Associate Director of Campaigns and Policy at Rethink Mental Illness:

“The pandemic has tested the resilience of the system and impacted people’s experience of mental health services when they are in desperate need of support. Our analysis  shows that where there are some pockets of good practice, many people have struggled to get meaningful mental health support in the early months of the pandemic, and in some cases have not received any support at all.

“As lockdown begins to ease, it’s vital that government and the NHS prioritise mental health to ensure services can respond to restrictions in the best possible way to support people living with severe mental illness, including those who are digitally excluded who cannot access services remotely.”

“We cannot let coronavirus undo the recent progress made to improve mental health services. It is really important that NHS England publish revised timelines for delivery of the Long Term Plan, while mental health needs to be a clear government priority with sustained funding and investment in services to meet the likely increased demand for care.

Brian Dow, Deputy CEO of Rethink Mental Illness:

“Coronavirus may be with us for many months or even years to come, but the mental health impact of the pandemic could last for a lifetime.

“It’s crucial that services can re-assess the balance between infection control and worsening mental health to ensure people are not at increased risk of suicide, self-harm or relapse. The message that NHS services are open for business is important and mental health must be a key priority to ensure a group that has been underserved in the past does not now feel again as though they are not deserving of help.”


Notes to editors

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About Rethink Mental Illness

No matter how bad things are, we can help people severely affected by mental illness to improve their lives.

We’re Rethink Mental Illness, a leading charity provider of mental health services in England. We support tens of thousands of people through our groups, services and advice and information. And we train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness. All of this work guides our campaigning for the rights of people with mental illness and their carers.

Working alongside the people we support, we are saving lives. Find out more at