The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for urgent need to increase investments in services for mental health toward averting surge in mental health conditions in the coming months.
Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, in a statement on Thursday, May 14, 2020, said the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighting the need to urgently increase investments in mental health services for the populace.
Ghebreyesus said the call was necessitated due to a policy brief on “COVID-19 and mental health” issued by the United Nations.
He said that the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health was extremely concerning.
“Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment,” the director-general said.
According to him, reports already indicated an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety in a number of countries.
“A study in Ethiopia, in April 2020, reported a three-fold increase in the prevalence of symptoms of depression compared to estimates from Ethiopia before the epidemic.
“Specific population groups are at particular risk of COVID-19 related psychological distress.
“Frontline healthcare workers, faced with heavy workloads, life-or-death decisions, and risks of infection, are particularly affected,” he said.
The health agency chief said that, during the pandemic in China, healthcare workers reported high rates of depression as 50 per cent; anxiety 45 per cent, and insomnia 34 per cent.
He added that, in Canada, 47 per cent of healthcare workers reported a need for psychological support.
“Children and adolescents are also at risk.
“Parents in Italy and Spain reported that their children had difficulties concentrating, as well as irritability, restlessness and nervousness.
“Stay-at-home measures have come with a heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse.
“Children with disabilities, children in crowded settings and those who live and work on the streets are particularly vulnerable,” he said.
Ghebreyesus noted that other groups that were at particular risk were women, particularly those who juggled home-schooling, working from home and household tasks.
He added that older people and people with pre-existing mental health conditions were also at risk.
“A study carried out with young people with a history of mental health needs living in UK, reports that 32 per cent of them agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health much worse.
“An increase in alcohol consumption is another area of concern for mental health experts.
“Statistics from Canada report that 20 per cent of 15 to 49 year-old, have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic,” the WHO chief said.
He maintained that the increase in people in need of mental health or psychosocial support had been compounded by the interruption to physical and mental health services in many countries.
“In addition to the conversion of mental health facilities into care facilities for people with COVID-19, care systems have been affected by mental health staff being infected with the virus and the closing of face-to-face services.
“Community services, such as self-help groups for alcohol and drug dependence, have, in many countries, been unable to meet for several months.
“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a collective responsibility of governments and civil society, with the support of the whole United Nations System.
“A failure to take people’s emotional wellbeing seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society,” Ghebreyesus said.
According to him, it is critical that people living with mental health conditions have continued access to treatment.
“Changes in approaches to provision of mental healthcare and psychosocial support are showing signs of success in some countries.
“In Madrid, when more than 60 per cent of mental health beds were converted to care for people with COVID-19, where possible, people with severe conditions were moved to private clinics to ensure continuity of care.
“Local policy-makers identified emergency psychiatry as an essential service to enable mental healthcare workers to continue outpatient services over the phone.
“Home visits were organised for the most serious cases.
“Teams from Egypt, Kenya, Nepal, Malaysia and New Zealand, among others, have reported creating increased capacity of emergency telephone lines for mental health to reach people in need,” Ghebreyesus said.
He added that support for community actions that strengthened social cohesion and reduced loneliness, particularly for the most vulnerable, such as older people, must continue.
“Such support is required from government, local authorities, the private sector and members of the general public, with initiatives such as provision of food parcels, regular phone check-ins with people living alone, and organisation of online activities for intellective and cognitive stimulation,” he said.
Also, Dr Dévora Kestel, Director, Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, WHO, said the scaling-up and reorganisation of mental health services that were needed globally was an opportunity to build a mental health system fit for the future.
“This means developing and funding national plans that shift care away from institutions to community services.
“This aims at 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,” Kestel said.
By Oluwafunke Ishola