‘Worrying increase’ in mental health referrals during pandemic

Psychiatrists record a ‘swell’ in people presenting because of self-harm and suicidal ideation, new onset depression and anxiety

Irish psychiatrists say there has been a “worrying increase” in mental health referrals and urgent presentations to specialist services during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown period.

Research carried out by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland warned of the emergence of a “new mental health curve that will need flattening” and said nearly half of its members had noticed a rise in patients experiencing a relapse of mental illness.

More than two thirds of the 200 consultant psychiatrists who took part in the survey reported a lull in mental health services after lockdown was announced in March and a subsequent increase in service needs between mid-April and mid-May.

When compared to numbers before lockdown, one in three consultant psychiatrists saw an increase in the number of emergency referrals while half of those surveyed said the number of patients experiencing a relapse in mental illness had increased.


Nearly 60 per cent of psychiatrists felt the demand for inpatient beds had increased in the past month when compared to the first month of lockdown while about 80 per cent felt that social isolation and reduced access to face-to-face secondary mental health supports was contributing to emergency presentations.

Psychiatrists also recorded a “swell” in people presenting because of self-harm and suicidal ideation, new onset depression and general anxiety.

Reduced access to local counselling supports and GPs, abuse and neglect in the home and an increased reliance on drugs and alcohol are also believed to have contributed to the rise in emergency presentations, according to the survey.

School closures were also flagged as a significant stress in people’s lives.

Online challenges

More than two thirds of psychiatrists who participated in the IT section of the study said they felt they were “ill-equipped” to conduct their duties online, adding that poor wifi signal often made consultations a challenge.

While teams have adapted to online and video-link services and new referral pathways, these new adaptations have left “clear staffing deficits exposed”, says the report.

Dr William Flannery, president of the College of Psychiatrists, noted that while more data was needed to predict an increase in presentations, “pressure on the mental health services is clearly arising”.

“This mental health curve arising needs to be urgently addressed and flattened by the incoming government with a national multisectoral taskforce, clear leadership and doubling of the funding to mental health services required,” said Dr Flannery.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast