Can the NHS Cope with the Impact of Flooding on Mental Health?

Signs submerged by flood water

Resilience is a word we’re hearing more of lately. There are courses to teach employees emotional health and resilience to cope well with stress, organisational change and other economic factors involved in the workplace.

An upcoming conference at King’s College School, Wimbledon on 20th March will focus on developing emotional resilience in schools, especially amongst high-achievers, who often succumb to the stress of their parents’ and teachers’ expectations as well as the desire to be perfect.

And recently, in the wake of the terrible floods that have afflicted large areas of the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he wants to ‘build a more resilient country for the future’.

I realise that David Cameron was speaking about the UK’s ability to respond to and recover from emergencies, but I wondered about the psychological resilience of the flood victims. How will they recover?

What is Resilience?

Resilience can be described as the ability of people to cope successfully when faced with significant change, adversity or risk. But how do you ‘bounce back’ when your home is filled with sewage infested water or your farmland resembles a lake? And what happens once the flood waters recede and people return to their homes, businesses and farms and inspect the damage?

At the moment many flood victims are likely to be in a state of shock or distress and just doing what needs to be done in order to cope with the upheaval in their lives. Some people won’t be able to move back into their homes for at least six months. There’ll be insurance claims to deal with, damage to assess, ruined possessions to cope with. Homes will have to be dried out and then protected against any future flood damage as much as possible. Either way, it’s going to be a long and, possibly, traumatic process.

The Effects of Flooding on Mental Health

Studies have shown that flooding is a stressful event and the stress continues long after the flood waters have receded. There is not only the stress of the flood to cope with but the stresses that arise when people try to recover their lives, property and relationships.

This period, known as the ‘Recovery Gap’ can be exacerbated by things like separation from friends, loss of employment and/or income and feelings of loss of control and fear of the flooding recurring.

Research published by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in December 2011 found that “Flooding can have profound effects on people‘s welfare, employment, mobility, wellbeing, psychosocial resilience, relationships and mental health.”

Most people are resilient and will cope with being flooded despite being distressed by it. But a minority of people are at risk of developing a mental health disorder that could take the form of:

  • Substance use and/or misuse
  • Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Behaviour problems in children and
  • Increased domestic violence.

The State of the NHS Mental Health Service

NHS logo

I’m not sure if David Cameron had the NHS Mental Health Services in mind when he said “money is no object to help this flood relief effort” but I suspect not. Unfortunately, any flood victim seeking help for a mental health problem caused by the flooding is likely to have a long wait.

Long Waiting Lists

A We Need to Talk report published by mental health charity Mind in November 2013 found that more than one in ten (12%) people with mental health problems are stuck on waiting lists for over a year before receiving talking treatments and over half (54%) wait over three months.

Funding Cuts

Despite the Coalition government’s focus on wellbeing, relentless cuts to NHS Mental Health Services has resulted in a system that can no longer cope.

Earlier this month, Professor Sue Bailey, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in an interview with The Observer newspaper warned that NHS mental services were approaching a “tipping point” due to funding cuts.

The Effect of the Recession on Mental Health

Apart from funding cuts, the NHS mental health services have been under strain since 2009 when the effects of the economic recession on people’s mental health became apparent.

A report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the London School of Economics and the NHS Confederation’s mental health network found that demand for mental health treatment had increased during 2009 because of rising levels of debt, home repossessions, unemployment and threat of redundancy.

The Economic Cost of Neglecting Mental Health

To be fair, the Coalition government was only elected in May 2010 and they did inherit a recession, but they have not done enough to help people suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. As a result, a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the economic cost to the UK of people not being able to work because of mental health issues was £70bn a year or 4.5% of GDP .

Mental Health Action Plan

There are some signs of progress. In January of this year Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched a new mental health action plan that will enable mental health patients to have a choice of where to be treated and a right to minimum waiting times. And the Government has launched an inquiry to put mental health on a par with physical health in the NHS.

But will that be of any benefit to flood victims needing help today?

Based on the experiences of the 2005 floods in Carlisle and the 2013 Cornish floods, it is likely that the full mental health impact of the floods will start to be felt in about six months’ time. Will the NHS Mental Health Services be able to cope?

NHS Mental Health Services need Money Now

If David Cameron wants a truly ‘resilient country’, then people need to be helped to recover both economically, socially and psychologically. Surely, some of the money earmarked for recovery would be well spent redirected towards NHS Mental Health Services.

Flood victims need help sooner rather than later to recover from their trauma. But meanwhile, anyone needing help for depression, anxiety or other mental health problems will just have to wait.

Photos: Thanks to Ron Adams and Squatbetty on (CC)

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