The impact of COVID-19 on mental health cannot be underestimated

One of the greatest global crises in generations, the COVID-19 pandemic has had serious and far-reaching repercussions for health systems, economies and societies. Countless people have died or lost their livelihoods. Families and communities have been strained and separated. Children and young people have lost learning and socialization. Businesses have failed. Millions of people have fallen below the poverty line.

As people face these health, social and economic impacts, mental health has been largely affected. Many of us have become more anxious; but for some, COVID-19 has triggered or amplified much more serious mental health problems. A large number of people have reported psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. And there have been troubling signs of more prevalent suicidal thoughts and behaviors, even among health care professionals.

Some groups of people have been affected far more than others. Faced with prolonged school and university closures, young people have been left vulnerable to social isolation and disconnection that can fuel feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness and lead to emotional and behavioral problems. For some children and adolescents, being forced to stay at home can increase the risk of family stress or abuse, risk factors for mental health problems. Likewise, women faced increased stress in homes, with a quick assessment reporting that 45% of women had experienced some form of violence, directly or indirectly during the first year of the pandemic.

As mental health needs have increased, mental health services have been severely disrupted. This was especially true at the start of the pandemic, when personnel and infrastructure were often reassigned to COVID-19 relief. Social measures also prevented people from accessing care at the time. And in many cases, poor knowledge and misinformation about the virus have fueled fears and worries that have prevented people from seeking help.

Fear factor

Esenam Abra Drah lives with bipolar disorder in Ghana, where fear of the virus has been an unprecedented stressor for many people’s mental health. “I have many friends who have relapsed into their mental health due to rising levels of fear and panic,” says Esenam. “It was almost as if the fear was contagious.”

Esenam explains that most people are afraid to ask for help because they think that if they visit the hospital, they could end up being infected with COVID-19. “I myself did not go to the clinic for therapy for a whole year, partly because of this fear,” she says.

At that time Esenam, like so many others, was unemployed and did not have the funds for treatment. Even before the pandemic, the cost of care was known to be a major obstacle for people with mental health problems seeking help.

“I have been privileged to have a good support system,” says Esenam. “My retired parents managed to make sure my medications were always stocked.”

“But it’s not the same for others,” he adds. “Some people couldn’t afford treatment. It was and still is a very difficult period for many people ”.

Recommendations for the answer

Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health service providers have sought to mitigate disruptions to services, for example by providing care through alternative pathways when public health and social measures were in place. Community-based initiatives have often adapted faster, finding innovative ways to provide psychosocial support, including through digital technologies and informal support. And international organizations have also provided guidance, tools and resources to help first responders, public health planners, and the general public.

WHO recommends integrating mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) into all aspects of preparedness and response to all public health emergencies. To minimize the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO also recommends that countries:

  • Apply the whole society approach to promote, protect and care for mental health, including through social and financial protection to safeguard people from domestic violence or impoverishment and by communicating extensively on COVID-19 to counter disinformation and promote mental health.
  • Ensure wide availability of mental health and psychosocial support, including by increasing access to self-help and supporting community initiatives.
  • Support the recovery from COVID-19 by building mental health services for the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like other ongoing crises, has made strengthening mental health systems around the world more urgent. “The impact of COVID-19 on mental health cannot be underestimated. It cannot be taken lightly, ”says Esenam. Change is possible.

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