There was a slightly surreal feel to the prime minister’s announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020. As we recognised that – for a time at least – this was the new reality, my organisation spotted the likely threat to our community’s mental health and wellbeing.
Yet normal avenues of public engagement about such threats – such as big meetings – were obviously closed off.
We issued a rallying call to our statutory partners across south London, inviting them to an urgent virtual summit aimed at preventing a mental health crisis. Council leaders, our neighbouring mental health trusts, community partners and clinicians all answered the appeal.
At this first summit councils, the NHS and community partners agreed that their organisations would take part in a two-year mental ill health prevention and recovery programme. We formed the South London COVID-19 Preventing Mental Ill Health Taskforce – adding experts by experience to the public sector presence.
At our second summit in November 2020, we launched South London Listens, an innovative partnership with Citizens UK, to find out how the pandemic was affecting our communities.
They trained 350 community leaders who listened to the stories of nearly 6,000 people in their own communities – either in small virtual group meetings or on a one-to-one basis.
They used simple questions to have a conversation, asking about the pressures people faced and what alleviated those pressures. Those that took part shared their experiences and ideas on how to solve pandemic-related challenges in their lives and communities.
A digital survey of around 2,000 people to supplement those insights revealed that 78% have been feeling isolated since the start of the pandemic and 76% have experienced loneliness. Some 81% of people have felt powerless.
This engagement activity meant that this month the local public sector could sign up to measures that address the pandemic-related pressures their residents have told us they face.
We feel we’ve reached further than any other engagement we’ve ever undertaken – as befits the scale of the crisis. We have gone deeper into communities, reaching people on the periphery of mental health services or beyond their reach.
Now many are engaging, supportive and want to make change happen. Working with our partners across local government and community groups we identified six key themes:
- lAccess to services, especially for migrant communities
- Young people’s mental health prevention and schools
- Digital exclusion
- Parental mental health
- Work and wages – with many facing reduced hours, unemployment or pay cuts
- Isolation, loneliness and the need for community development.
These themes shaped a range of ‘asks’ at our latest online community summit attended by around 500 people this month – some aimed at the mental health trusts and some at the local authorities. The nine core asks of councils included:
- Help to support and resource a mental health champion programme
- Develop a social isolation and digital inclusion strategy
- Accredit as a Living Wage or Living Hours borough (for those that aren’t already)
- Support and resource parent groups to offer peer-to-peer support
- Facilitating mental health first aid training to frontline staff.
There were also wider requests such as supporting local procurement wherever possible and hosting career days.
Inevitably, given the diverse political and demographic make-up of the 12 boroughs, there was a range of responses in terms of the asks particular councils committed themselves to achieving.
Taking part in South London Listens has been demanding but inspiring. The community organisations and leaders did a fantastic job in capturing the pressures that the pandemic has piled on the people we serve in south London and suggesting how the public sector can best respond.
But our response to those ideas is the beginning, not the end, of making positive change together. We must continue to build trust with our communities if we really are to build back better.
That is why we have agreed to capture these commitments in an action plan and to meet regularly with community leaders to monitor progress.
Action plans are all well and good but as accountability tools they can arouse scepticism.
We have agreed to participate in an Accountability Assembly next summer where the NHS and councils can report back and share good practice.
Hopefully we can also celebrate our progress and a return to some form of normality that leaves the surreal behind us.
Sir Norman Lamb is chair of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust