COVID-19 Deals Blows to Mental Health Services – Report

The coronavirus has disrupted or stopped critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide, at a time when the demand for the services is increasing.

This is according to a new survey by the World Health Organization which indicates that bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones.

As of October 11, the novel coronavirus has killed at least 1,074,055 people since the outbreak emerged in China last December and infected at least 37,297,350.

The survey of 130 countries also reveals that many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety.

According to the Organization, COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke.

“People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection ̶ they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death,” WHO said in the report.

WHO has previously highlighted the chronic underfunding of mental health: prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2 percent of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.

“Good mental health is absolutely fundamental to overall health and well-being,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

“COVID-19 has interrupted essential mental health services around the world just when they’re needed most. World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life-saving mental health programmes ̶ during the pandemic and beyond.”

Major Disruptions 

According to the study, over 60 percent of countries reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents at 72 percent, older adults at 70 percent, and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services at 61 percent.

The survey also reported that 67 percent of countries saw disruptions to counseling and psychotherapy; 65 percent to critical harm reduction services; and 45 percent to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for opioid dependence.

Meanwhile, more than a third, at 35 percent, reported disruptions to emergency interventions, including those for people experiencing prolonged seizures; severe substance use withdrawal syndromes; and delirium, often a sign of a serious underlying medical condition.

Additionally, 30 percent reported disruptions to access for medications for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. 

Around three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services at 78 percent and 75 percent respectively.

Turning to technology

The WHO also finds that many countries, at 70 percent, have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome disruptions to in-person services.

According to the Organization, more than 80 percent of high-income countries reported deploying telemedicine and teletherapy to bridge gaps in mental health, compared with less than 50 percent of low-income countries.

Overall, WHO says 89 percent of countries reported that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans; however, only 17 percent of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities.

“This all highlights the need for more money for mental health. As the pandemic continues, even greater demand will be placed on national and international mental health programmes that have suffered from years of chronic underfunding. Spending 2 percent of national health budgets on mental health is not enough. International funders also need to do more: mental health still receives less than 1 percent of international aid earmarked for health,” WHO said.

The Organization recommends countries invest in mental health saying those who do will reap rewards.

Pre-COVID-19 estimates reveal that nearly US$ 1 trillion in economic productivity is lost annually from depression and anxiety alone. Studies show that every US$ 1 spent on evidence-based care for depression and anxiety returns US$5.

The survey was conducted from June to August 2020 among 130 countries across WHO’s six regions. 

It evaluates how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to COVID-19, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges.

Margaret Njugunah

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