- According to the UN, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed decades of neglect and underinvestment in addressing mental health needs of people.
- High rates of depression, anxiety and insomnia was reported among health workers in China during the pandemic with rates of 50%, 45% and 34% respectively.
- There will be long term social and economic cost for a failure to take emotional well-being of people seriously.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 global pandemic has posed serious threat to human survival across all sectors and segments of society. One major issue that requires urgent attention is the issue of mental health.
Dévora Kestel, Director, Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization (WHO) indicated that past economic crises have resulted in increased number of people with mental health issues, culminating to higher rates of suicides.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 800,000 people die through suicide every year. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among people within the ages of 15 to 29. The highest number of suicide cases are recorded in low- and middle-income countries, as they account for 75% of all suicide cases in the world.
According to WHO, responsible media reporting, early identification and treatment, restriction of access to means, training of health workers, introducing alcohol policies, follow-up care and community supports are some effective preventive measures. The Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, targets 10% reduction of suicide rates.
The UN Secretary-General , António Guterres in a video message also mentioned depression and anxiety as the greatest cause of misery in the world. The UN indicated that depression and anxiety cost the global economy more than $1 trillion per year before the outbreak of the pandemic.
The UN has indicated that due to multiple stressors generated by the current pandemic, people who previously coped well with stress are less able to cope.
A policy brief on COVID-19 and mental health issues by the United Nations on Thursday, May 14, 2020 highlights the urgent need for huge investment in mental health services otherwise the world stands the chance of experiencing a massive increase in mental health conditions in few months to come. The pandemic is having serious impact on mental well-being of people across the globe.
“The world needs to urgently increase investment in services for mental health to prevent a massive increase in mental health conditions” - WHO
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director of WHO said;
“Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment”
Studies already pointed to the increasing symptoms of depression and anxiety in a number of countries. One study revealed that symptoms of depression in Ethiopia tripled during the outbreak of the pandemic as compared to the estimates before the outbreak.
Most vulnerable groups
Psychological distress is high among front-line health workers, faced with heavy workloads, life-or-death decisions, and risk of infection. High rates of depression, anxiety and insomnia was reported among health workers in China during the pandemic with rates of 50%, 45% and 34% respectively.
According to the policy brief, adolescents and children are also at risk. There are high probabilities of children witnessing or suffering abuse and violence during stay-at-home measures. The vulnerable groups of children are those with disabilities, those living in slums and crowded settings as well as street children.
Other vulnerable groups are women who have to combine working from home with household tasks, elderly people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions.
Increasing consumption of alcohol is another area of concern for mental health experts. Data from Canada showed that 20% of people between the ages of 15 and 49 have increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
According to WHO, the conversion of mental health facilities into isolation centres in some countries has been compounded with some of the mental health workers contacting the virus; this has stopped face-to-face services.
WHO calls for a collective responsibility of governments, civil society and the whole UN system to deal with mental health issues. There will be long term social and economic cost for a failure to take emotional well-being of people seriously.
“It is now clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”, Dr Tedros Adhanom.
To deal with this problem, WHO suggests the need for community actions that strengthen social cohesion and reduce loneliness, especially for the most vulnerable, such as the aged.
There should be initiatives such as provision of food parcels, regular phone check-ins with people living alone, and organization of online activities for intellective and cognitive stimulation by governments, local authorities, private sector and the general public.
There is the need for reorganization and scaling up of the health system to build a system that fits for the future. Future mental health systems must shift from institutions to community service. Dévora Kestel, Director of The Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO said that,
“This means developing and funding national plans that shift away from institutions to community service, ensuring coverage for mental health conditions in health insurance packages and building the human resource capacity to deliver quality mental health and social care in the community.”