Ireland facing a ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems

Health experts warn of increase in suicide and self-harm due to coronavirus

People taking part in Darkness Into Light, in aid of Pieta House, in Skerries, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

People taking part in Darkness Into Light, in aid of Pieta House, in Skerries, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Ireland is facing a “tsunami” of mental health problems due to the coronavirus pandemic, with early indications showing an increase in suicide and self-harm, health experts warn.

Data collection on suicides by Irish hospitals were suspended as a result of the lockdown, meaning there are no current figures on suicide and self-harm rates, according to the National Self-Harm Registry.

However other data sources point to a significant upward trend. In March and April of this year, 17 per cent of patients admitted to the National Spinal Injuries Unit in the Mater Hospital had sustained injuries in a suicide attempt compared to one per cent in the same period last year.

The numbers involved are small but they reflect a trend which is being seen elsewhere. According to a recent US study, 45 per cent of people with suicidal thoughts explicitly linked them to Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

On Monday, the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland (CPI) concluded a survey of 615 consultants. The data is still being analysed but there are early indications of a worrying trend, the college said.

“A large proportion of consultants are reporting that they are now seeing an increase in people experiencing both new-onset and relapse of mental illness compared to the early stages of the lockdown but also to before the lockdown came into place,” said Andrea Ryder of the CPI.

Increasing numbers of patients are presenting with suicidal ideation and signs of self-harm, she said.

“We can see and we know that a tsunami of mental health issues are coming. We know that anecdotally from us working as clinicians in emergency hospitals and in community settings,” said Professor Fiona McNicholas, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist.

There is particular concern about the mental health of young people already prone to anxiety and the elderly who have been forced to cocoon since the start of the pandemic.

Social upheavals

In one young person, the lockdown exacerbated an eating disorder, said Prof McNicholas.

“The loss of their ability to engage in their usual exercises led them to over focus on eating. They presented in a very malnourished state with typical anorexic behaviour.”

In a second case, a previously healthy young boy started exercising on his own to maintain his fitness during lockdown.

“Unfortunately for him, it led to exercise addiction,” said Prof McNicholas. “To the point where he lost 20 per cent of his body weight and was medically compromised.”

Dr John Lyne, a consultant general adult psychiatrist and editor of the IJPM, said there is potential for an increase in suicides, particularly if there is a severe economic depression. In the past social upheavals such as the Troubles or the 2008 recession, were associated with raised suicide rates, which can last for years.

The pandemic has also coincided with an increase in other mental health crises. In March and April the number of applications by gardaí to the Mental Health Commission (MHC) for the involuntary admission of mentally ill people increased by 7 per cent compared to the same period last year.

“However, the reason for this slight increase is not possible without a more detailed analysis,” the MHC said.

For help call: Samaritans Free Call 116 123 or Pieta House 1800 247 247

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