A third of mental health and wellbeing hubs, launched during the COVID-19 pandemic to support NHS staff in England — including pharmacists — have closed, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
The hubs were set up in February 2021 to provide health and social care staff with access to evidence-based mental health services from qualified mental health clinicians, therapists, recovery workers and psychologists.
However, in a statement published on 18 May 2023, the RCN said it had learned that out of 41 hubs, “a third (13 hubs) have already closed, leaving an estimated 1 million people unsupported”.
The statement added that a further 7 hubs “have less than a year’s funding available, potentially leaving thousands more staff without vital mental health services”.
The closures have come despite a survey by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) revealing in January 2023 that 88% of 1,496 pharmacy staff questioned were at high risk of burnout.
Similarly, out of 1,600 pharmacists surveyed as part of The Pharmaceutical Journal salary and job satisfaction survey, carried out in April 2023, 61% said they were either ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ stressed at work, with a further 5% reporting that they had to take time off work owing to stress.
Thorrun Govind, chair of the RPS’s English Pharmacy Board said: “We are disappointed to hear that the mental health hubs are closing, particularly at a time when the burnout of the workforce is high – 88% of pharmacists that responded to our workforce wellbeing survey said they were at risk of burnout.
“The ‘People plan‘ published in 2019 highlighted the need to support the wellbeing of the workforce and the news that these hubs are closing goes against that.
“We encourage any pharmacists and their teams who are struggling to use the advice and resources provided by Pharmacist Support. However, long term, pharmacy teams must continue to be a part of any NHS England-funded support to help with wellbeing in the workforce.”
Commenting on the closures, Sean Duggan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network, said: “While the main brunt of the pandemic is largely over, NHS staff are still facing considerable pressures, such as high demand for most NHS services and high vacancy rates.
“This is coupled with the last NHS survey showing that staff morale is already low, and at a time where anxiety, stress, depression or psychiatric illness is one of the main reasons for staff sickness in the NHS and accounts for about 20% of all sickness absence in the service.”
He added: “Some NHS services will have other support in place, but health leaders will be particularly concerned for those that do not have any support in place. The right support, such as hubs, gives an opportunity for staff to feel safe to talk about their mental health problems.”
In November 2022, NHS England announced that all primary care staff, including GP and community pharmacists, were now able to self-refer to NHS Practitioner Health — a free, confidential service aimed at supporting healthcare professionals with mental illness and addiction problems.
Pharmacists had previously only been able to access mental health services and support via one of the mental health and wellbeing hubs across England, which could refer primary care health team members with more complex needs.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce is of the utmost importance, which is why the NHS is providing ongoing physical and mental health support for staff.
“This includes targeted psychological support and treatment and a national support service for those with more complex mental health needs brought about by serious issues, such as trauma or addiction.”
They added that the hubs were set up by NHS England in October 2020 using additional non-recurrent COVID-19 funding that was part of the NHS England budget, and that a final decision on the funding of these hubs for 2023/2024 will be made and communicated by NHS England in due course.