Covid: ‘Sustained surge’ of mental health problems expected in coming years

Aware and Pieta House describe challenges faced during pandemic at Oireachtas hearing

Mental health services need to be prepared for “a sustained surge in demand over the coming years” in the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Dominic Layden, chief executive of Aware, said the impact of the previous recession on people's mental health was not fully felt until two to three years after the financial crash.

Aware, a volunteer-led charity that supports those with depression and bipolar disorder, saw huge spikes in calls in April, May and July last year, he said.

The Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health was hearing from Aware, and suicide prevention charity Pieta House, on their challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Mr Layden said the charity received a third more calls last year than in 2019, with volunteers reporting more cases of very distressed people seeking help.

Public health measures and restrictions had in some cases triggered depressive episodes and exacerbated pre-existing mental health problems, he said.

A significant cohort of vulnerable people were at risk of sustained and long-term distress, as the country emerged from the pandemic, he said.

“There are significant waiting lists that are out there for people waiting for counselling and services,” he said.

There was a need for much closer integration between mental health charities, the Health Service Executive, and general practitioners, he said.

Sinn Féin TD Pat Buckley expressed concern that a "tsunami effect" of mental health problems from the pandemic would not be felt for more than a year.

“It’s not today, or tomorrow, or five months’ time, it’s going to be 12 to 18 months when this tsunami effect of Covid is going to hit,” he said.

“ It’s going to hit everybody, to children, to the people who lose their jobs, to the elderly, to the people who have been isolated,” he said.

Elaine Austin, chief executive of Pieta House, said it had responded to 30 per cent more crisis calls and texts last year, compared to 2019.

The charity, which employs more than 100 therapists, supported over 7,000 people last year.

Ms Austin said those seeking support during Covid-19 were experiencing higher levels of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness.

A helpline run by Pieta House had seen spikes in calls on several occasions, often coinciding with the announcement of stricter Covid-19 rescase numbers were rising.

trictions, or when “With an uncertain economic outlook, we anticipate and expect this rise in demand to continue as we move further into 2021,” Ms Austin said.

The charity received €3.4 million in State funding last year, which was a fifth of its total funding, with the rest coming from donations.

Ms Austin said the charity was currently “heavily recruiting” more therapists to expand its services.

Labour Party Senator Annie Hoey said she was aware of cases where people were put off trying to engage with mental health services, due to lengthy waiting lists.

Fine Gael senator Martin Conway said he had a "concern" about small suicide prevention organisations being set up in communities, following local tragedies. There was a "proliferation" of numerous small groups, which were not coordinating with others, or being channelled in a professional way, he said.

Support for anyone in distress can be obtained by contacting the Samaritans on 116 123 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247. People can also text the word Help to Pieta House on 51444 or email

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times