Community workers are at the frontline of the mental health crisis

“We need to treat our community leaders and workers with the greatest of respect, we need to act to support their mental health needs and we need to do this now.”

In this blog for mental health awareness week, People’s Health Trust CEO John Hume discusses the growing mental health crisis amongst community leaders and workers.

Front-line leaders in funded grass roots organisations in neighbourhoods we support say that they have seen a decline in the mental health of their residents. The figures are shocking with 97% of respondents stating that mental health, including fear of going out, grief and loss are serious challenges to local people.

These neighbourhoods already experience disadvantage and, in some cases, extreme disadvantage. In both of our programmes, Local Conversations and Active Communities, 60% and 68% (respectively) have had to provide residents with telephone support and helplines over the last few months and 60% and 62% (respectively) expect to continue having to provide higher levels of mental health support over the coming months.

The pandemic came on the back of widening health inequalities compared to ten years ago, and stalling life expectancies for the first time in 100 years. Neighbourhoods had endured a decade of austerity and cuts to essential services: things were not in good shape before the pandemic, so it’s hardly surprising that we’re seeing such shocking mental health figures emerge: there was no reserve in the tank.

The lifeline for many has been their local voluntary and community service, community centre, or local group. Within these places an army of people, many of whom are volunteers, have stayed open and supported their communities. Between 75% and 82% of all of our funded projects have stayed open and active during the pandemic – despite knowing they would be forgiven for closing and despite knowing that they could receive pay through the furlough scheme. Whilst this choice was entirely theirs, to some degree it wasn’t. If they weren’t open, who was going to support people in neighbourhoods up and down the country who had no services and little access to resources?

Last year, through our networks and two surveys, we heard directly from community leaders and workers about how they had supported people on very low pay/insecure work who had lost their jobs, people with no food and no means of getting any and, people who couldn’t pay their rent or afford the funeral costs for loved ones who had died from Covid-19. We heard about the raw individual and neighbourhood grief as some places were hit hard by a high numbers of deaths from Covid, particularly in neighbourhoods with high levels of South Asian residents.

Each of these community spaces is run by local people who are only human. They have opened their doors to support their fellow residents, but it wasn’t in anyone’s job description to deal with the scale of individual and collective trauma that these workers have dealt with.

In our most recent surveys of funded organisations, between 43% - 60% of leaders anticipate the mental health of community leaders/workers to be a serious challenge over the next six months. And this is where the real danger starts. For 14 months, thousands of community workers have kept people fed and housed with debts and anxiety at least managed, even if not resolved. What now happens if these community workers become too unwell to work?

The impact on them individually and their families is as serious as the impact on the neighbourhood – the economic fall out alone should be sobering – as residents without this support will inevitably turn to already-stretched GPs, social services and emergency services for essential support currently provided by their community groups.

We need to treat our community leaders and workers with the greatest of respect, we need to act to support their mental health needs and we need to do this now.

We are calling on the Government to support the setting up of community workers’ networks to offer safe mental health support and rapid referral processes for community workers who need it.

Over the past year, People’s Health Trust has offered some support spaces, but the needs are significant and we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg.

This is not a costly intervention – resourcing groups which can offer facilitated support for community workers to deal with the trauma and extreme workloads they have faced, are a drop in the ocean compared to the vast sums which will have to be spent doing the work that these community workers and leaders have taken on over the past year.

This mental health crisis is amongst our community workers now. People who have worked tirelessly for others over the past 14 months cannot be stoical and keep going: they deserve our support, their communities deserve our support and they deserve it now before this becomes an avoidable catastrophe and contributes to a further widening of health inequalities.