Addressing mental health and the pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners: United for Global Mental Health, and the World Federation for Mental Health, recently pointed to the fact that mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health.
According to the health partners, billions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on people’s mental health. In their recent report, WHO and its partners note that close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol, and one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.
However, in spite of the magnitude of the mental health crisis, relatively few people around the world have access to quality mental health services. According to the health partners, in low- and middle-income countries, more than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance-use disorders receive no treatment at all for their condition. Furthermore, stigma, discrimination, punitive legislation and human rights abuses are still widespread.
The health partners explained that the limited access to quality, affordable mental health care in the world before the pandemic, and particularly in humanitarian emergencies and conflict settings, has been further diminished due to COVID-19, as the pandemic has disrupted health services around the world.
For this reason, WHO, together with partner organisations United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health, has called for a massive scale-up in investment in mental health.
According to the health partners, countries spend on average only two per cent of their health budgets on mental health. “Despite some increases in recent years, international development assistance for mental health has never exceeded one per cent of all development assistance for health. This is despite the fact that for every US$1 invested in scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, there is a return of US$5 in improved health and productivity,” they explained.
Due to COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are bracing themselves to deal with a host of accompanying social and economic problems, which no doubt are taking a toll on communities everywhere. The lockdowns implemented, even though they were necessary to contain the further spread of the virus, come with their own challenges; and countries, including Guyana, must immediately plan how they will address the huge negative social impact this will have on people as much as possible.
We have already reported on the notable worldwide spike in cases of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household, resulting from the huge impact the virus is having on families. The United Nations recently pointed to reports from countries around the world which suggest that “restrictions in movement, social isolation, coupled with increased social and economic pressures are leading to an increase in violence in the home”.
It should be noted that in Guyana, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, households were experiencing extremely tough economic times. In addition to destruction of the mining, rice and manufacturing sectors, the previous Government’s closure of the sugar estates had caused thousands to be jobless and in poverty. This resulted in a host of social problems affecting communities across the country.
Worldwide, data also confirms that medical professionals and other key frontline workers are experiencing significant mental health problems linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A key part of the UN appeal is for mental health care to be incorporated into all governments’ COVID-19 strategies, given that national average expenditure on it is just two per cent.
Importantly, the WHO and its partners have called on everyone to do something life-affirming: as individuals, to take concrete actions in support of our own mental health, and to support friends and family who are struggling; as employers, to take steps towards putting in place employee wellness programmes; as governments, to commit to establishing or scaling-up mental health services; and as journalists, to explain what more can and must be done to make mental health care a reality for everyone.