The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of the countries worldwide, according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) survey. The survey of 130 countries provides the first global data showing the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the access to mental health services and underscores the urgent need for increased funding.
The survey was published ahead of WHO’s ‘Big Event for Mental Health’, scheduled on October 10. The event aims to bring together world leaders, celebrities, and advocates to call for increased mental health investments in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The WHO has previously highlighted the chronic underfunding of mental health. Prior to the pandemic, countries were spending less than 2 per cent of their national health budgets on mental health and struggling to meet the needs of their population.
Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing insomnia and anxiety.
Meanwhile, coronavirus 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 and may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death.
SURVEY FINDS MAJOR DISRUPTIONS TO CRITICAL MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
The survey was conducted from June to August 2020 in 130 countries across WHO’s six regions. It evaluated how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to the pandemic, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges.
Countries reported widespread disruption in many kinds of critical mental health services:
1. Over 60 per cent reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72 per cent), older adults (70 per cent), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61 per cent).
2. About 67 per cent saw disruptions to counseling and psychotherapy; 65 per cent to critical harm reduction services; and 45 per cent to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for opioid dependence.
3. Nearly a third (35 per cent) 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.
4. 30 per cent reported disruptions to access for medications for mental, neurological and substance use disorders.
5. Nearly three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services (78 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively).
While many countries (70 per cent) have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome disruptions to in-person services, there are significant disparities in the uptake of these interventions.
More than 80 per cent of high-income countries reported deploying telemedicine and teletherapy to bridge gaps in mental health, compared with less than 50 per cent of low-income countries.
The WHO has issued guidelines to countries on how to maintain essential services – including mental health services – during the coronavirus pandemic and recommends that countries allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans.
The organisation also urges the countries to monitor changes and disruptions in services so that they can address them as required.
Although 89 per cent of the countries reported, in the survey, that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national Covid-19 response plans, only 17 per cent 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 per cent of national health budgets on mental health is not enough. International funders also need to do more: mental health still receives less than 1 per cent of international aid earmarked for health.
Those who do invest in mental health will reap rewards. Pre-coronavirus estimates reveal that nearly US$1 trillion in economic productivity is lost annually from depression and anxiety alone. However, studies show that every US$1 spent on evidence-based care for depression and anxiety returns US$5.