Community pharmacists have seen an increase in patients showing new or exacerbated mental health issues since the lockdown began in March, confirming fears that a surge in mental health issues is ‘imminent’.

With many GP surgeries and mental health support services maintaining a closed-door policy during lockdown, more people suffering from mental health issues have turned to pharmacists for help.

Since March, pharmacists have noted a rise in patients showing signs of anxiety, depression and psychotic behaviour, which some believe are the unwanted side effects of social isolation and joblessness.

Mike Hewitson, a superintendent pharmacist at Beaminster Pharmacy in Dorset said that he’d seen an increase in more serious cases in recent weeks, and believes these cases are a sign of what's to come.

‘I’m concerned about the impacts of social isolation on people's mental health, which is likely to linger much longer than the virus itself. Cases are bound to rise even more after lockdown is lifted when people start to come out of their homes,’

London-based superintendent pharmacist Sobha Sharma Kandel said she had seen people with previous mental health issues who have relapsed in recent weeks due to ‘increasing social isolation.’

‘Social distancing and self-isolating are essential to stop the spread of Covid-19, but the effect psychologically and the toll on mental health has been immense,’ she said.

Ade Williams, superintendent pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy in Bristol, has also seen a wide range of people coming in displaying mental health symptoms.

‘I’ve seen elderly patients come in with anxiety, centred around confusion over mixed messages from the government - they aren't sure what they are meant to be doing. I’ve also noticed younger people showing signs of anxiety and worry over their jobs. Many seem to be concerned over what the future holds for them financially.’

Demand may be rising. Mr Williams said he has seen more people presenting with anxiety since ‘fears surrounding the physical symptoms of the virus have lessened and become less of a focus’.

Issues surrounding growing levels of mental health issues have been exacerbated by antidepressant shortages: ‘difficulties obtaining some common antidepressants like Sertraline caused a lot of issues in pharmacy, especially at the beginning of lockdown,’ said Ms Kandel.

Mental health training needed

Mr Hewitson said that he does not believe that pharmacy is ‘well enough equipped’ to deal with the influx of mental health cases.

‘I feel that we need more training to support and help patients, pharmacy staff need to be able to identify when a patient is having mental health issues, especially when people start to emerge from lockdown.’

‘This is a good opportunity for pharmacies to be able to help people. But we require extra training, which we don't have,’ Mr Hewitson said.

Mr Williams said he believed that all pharmacy staff should be trained in mental health first aid and that pharmacies should be integrated into the mental health pathway, so that the sector can provide ‘better support to patients’.

Earlier this month, the Royal College Of Psychiatrists forecasted a ‘tsunami’ in mental health illness after lockdown, following a 45% dip in the number of routine psychiatry appointments and a 43% increase in urgent and emergency cases.

This week, Pharmacist Support encouraged pharmacy teams to check in on their own wellbeing and that of colleagues, to have more conversations around mental health, and to ‘take action’ when needed.