Monday, June 29, 2020

COVID-19 Crisis Demands Leadership from the Counselling and Mental Health Professions

David Weaver

Mental health and emotional well-being challenges are being faced across the world as a result of COVID-19. These are unprecedented times and being silent or coy about the role that counselling and mental health professions should play is, I believe, a failure to meet our responsibilities to society at large. What the coronavirus has done is to lay bare the truth that we are only as good as those who are most disenfranchised, not only in the UK but across the globe. People across the world, and certainly here in the UK, deserve clear and strong leadership. It is my view that the counselling and mental health professions need to raise their game and exercise the  ethical leadership required.

What we are seeing in terms of the health of this nation, is very disturbing. People and communities are witnessing sickness, anxiety, depression, shock and death, set against a health service that is struggling to deal with the impact. This has left people feeling destitute in their homes and communities, and, despite popular opinion, this effect has been discriminatory due to disproportionate effects upon those already neglected by our society. 

The evidence points to structural and systemic inequality in the impact of coronavirus. Data from the Office of National Statistics this May shows that those in deprived areas in the UK have been twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than those in non-deprived areas. In addition, those from Black and Asian minorities are up to and over four times more likely to die of COVID-19. These communities will be most at risk in the uncertain stages of coming out of the lock-down and managing any further potential spikes of the virus. The families and communities concerned will be in dire need of culturally-appropriate therapeutic support. As President of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), I have called for government to ensure a strategy that addresses the ongoing specific trauma being faced by Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

The call for action for government and decision-making institutions is to actually listen to what the general public is saying. Everybody is experiencing loss; loss of life and loved ones or loss of jobs, safety and security. To ignore mental health needs at this point will harm not only individuals, but society and economy as a whole. There will not be recovery and revival unless this is dealt with. People are desperate for support and, as counsellors, we must embrace our role as advocates, as well as what we do in the room for the client. 

Counsellors must embrace and engage with communities to make the active case to government. Even if some politicians are less concerned about the intricacies of individual mental health needs, they need to understand direct causal links between mental health, well-being and the success of the UK economy. History provides enough evidence of the impact of mental illness on productivity. Depression was already the leading cause of the global health burden of disease pre-pandemic, costing £105.2 billion each year in the United Kingdom alone. The World Health Organisation estimates the astronomical, long-term impact of coronavirus on mental health, gathering mounting evidence to anticipate depression, loneliness, suicide, anxiety and alcoholism, to name a few. Leading practitioners have seen a surge of both new and relapsing cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder due to the current threat and vulnerability that individuals are feeling for themselves and their loved ones. There could not be more urgency at this point to make provisions for counselling and therapeutic support.

Employers in particular will need to think about the mental health of those disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Offering appropriate and impactful counselling interventions that meet those people’s needs will be crucial for employees at this stage, as a simple duty of care. Yet again, the evidence points to the business-critical case for treating mental health problems seriously in order to offset the many indirect costs, including absenteeism and loss of productivity. 

Due consideration will also be needed of the demographic of those most affected by COVID-19 in terms of barriers to access. Older generations are on the whole less likely to access psycho-therapeutic support, and there is a well-known dissonance between the type of therapeutic interventions offered by the overwhelmingly white demographic of the counselling professions and the needs of Black and ethnic minority clients and communities.  Once more, we see an existing problem exacerbated by coronavirus. 

We have to now see this as our responsibility to demand and enact the long overdue changes necessary to transform the relationship between the counselling professions and the communities that need support. Only by doing this will we demonstrate our relevance. If we get this right, I firmly believe that communities will support us, but we have to urgently take up the leadership mantle and do our piece at this unprecedented time where society most needs us. 

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