COVID-19 is a physical health crisis that is straining healthcare systems across the globe, however, it is also having a severe impact on mental health. The United Nations has now called for action on mental health support for the most vulnerable in light of the crisis.
Action must be taken to prevent a major mental health crisis as a result of COVID-19, says the UN. In a policy briefing earlier this month the organisation has emphasised how mental health must be at the ‘front and centre of every country’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic’.
The report highlights that mental health services are severely underfunded, stating that ‘countries spend on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health.’
The mental health impact of COVID-19
According to the UN, ‘the global economy loses more than US$1trn (€0.91trn) per year due to depression and anxiety’, stating that ‘mental health is one of the most neglected areas of health’.
Losing jobs, financial security, loved ones, anxiety about one’s own death and the future, the inability to go out to see friends and family, and family stresses in the home are just some of the reasons the COVID-19 crisis is causing a variety of new mental health problems, as well as exacerbating existing ones.
The UN is concerned that a major mental health crisis will follow the COVID-19 crisis if imminent action is not taken and has taken steps to ensure proper support is provided to those most vulnerable in our societies.
Impact on mental health services
Mental health services across the world are already strained, with limited access to affordable and quality mental health care in countries of conflict, for example.
The COVID-19 crisis is set to compound the issue if health services, which have already been majorly disrupted by COVID-19, are not able to adapt to the growing mental health support needs of citizens across the globe.
Face-to-face services have dramatically decreased in a bid to control the spread of the COVID-19 infection, which has led to a rise in the use of telehealth services – including the use of remote mental health care. The UN has highlighted how ‘such approaches can be effective and scalable, though their limitation is that illiterate, poor, and older populations have much less internet or telecommunications access, and such approaches are not an answer for all mental health needs.’
UN recommendations for mental health support
To tackle the problem head-on the UN has made a number of recommendations to help alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and mental health services.
The first recommendation is to ‘apply a whole-of-society approach to promote, protect, and care for mental health’, such as ensuring any stay-at-home emergency measures minimise effects on people’s mental wellbeing and for governments to implement financial protection measures for citizens.
Secondly, to ‘ensure widespread availability of emergency mental health and psychosocial support’, such as reducing loneliness within communities, providing mental health and social care for people with severe mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities, and the scaling up of access to remote mental health services.
Thirdly, the UN recommends to ‘support recovery from COVID-19 by building mental health services for the future’. The organisation highlights that mental health services need more investment and recommends that affordable community-based services are implemented for mental health support.
The report states: ‘Mental health care must be included in health care benefit packages and insurance schemes to ensure essential mental health needs are covered. Capacity of staff needs to be built across health, social and educational sectors to address mental health, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
‘Evidence-based programmes that promote psychosocial wellbeing require appropriate budgets. Emergencies can be a catalyst for building back better, sustainable, mental health services. People with lived experience of mental health conditions should be involved in the strengthening of mental health services. Investments now will reduce the mental health impact of COVID-19 and will help ensure that countries are better prepared to help their populations to stay mentally healthy, emergency or not.’