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Formal referrals from pharmacy to mental health specialists are needed following COVID-19 pandemic, says RPS

A Royal Pharmaceutical Society policy document says community pharmacists are important in the early detection of mental health problems.

Formal mechanisms for pharmacists to directly refer people to specialist mental health care should be put in place following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS).

The recommendation comes in a new RPS policy document ‘The role of pharmacy in mental health and wellbeing: COVID-19 and beyond’, published on 27 August 2020.

The impact of the pandemic, the policy states, “is not merely physical”. Factors including “isolation, economic instability and sudden and seismic changes to day-to-day life” have, alongside the more direct effects of the virus, placed “considerable strain” upon the population’s mental health. 

Noting that the number of adults in Great Britain experiencing some form of depression has doubled during the pandemic compared with previous years, the policy sets out the professional responsibilities of pharmacists to patients with mental health problems — and how policy can support pharmacists to carry out those responsibilities.

Pharmacists should, the policy says, be able to “increase and accelerate access to mental health and wellbeing support”. It adds that at the moment, pharmacists’ role in signposting and referral to mental health support services is “typically informal and relies upon individual pharmacists, their knowledge of local services and personal relationships with local GPs and mental health teams”.

The document adds that as demand grows, a more formal system is needed, with “structured referral systems and working practices”.

Amongst other recommendations, the policy says that mental health and hospital services should prioritise communication with all relevant primary care professionals, including community pharmacists, as part of a more “collaborative approach” to care. It also says that pharmacists should have protected time to “learn new skills and update their knowledge as part of a multidisciplinary team” to further support community mental health and wellbeing.

Community pharmacists are, the policy says, “particularly important in the early detection of mental health and wellbeing problems”. A decline in a person’s mental health could be picked up at an early stage by monitoring requests for certain over-the-counter medicines, like “anti-anxiety or sedative products, analgesics, and laxatives”.

It adds that hospital pharmacists should be alert to the risk of mental health problems in patients with COVID-19, both during their hospital stay and on discharge.

Sandra Gidley, president of the RPS, said that the pandemic “has affected people with existing mental health conditions and created a whole new level of depression and distress in those previously unaffected.

“We want pharmacists fully equipped to respond and to feel confident to do so. The only way to manage the potential tsunami of mental health need is as part of a coordinated approach in collaboration with other agencies and healthcare colleagues.”

RPS members can access a dedicated wellbeing hub here: Your wellbeing during COVID-19

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20208296

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