Reflecting on our #MHForAll webinar series
By Anna Watkins
In March, when the majority of the world was plunged into lockdown, isolation and social restrictions, our minds immediately turned to the mental health of the millions of people in uncertain, potentially isolating and sometimes psychologically damaging circumstances. As a campaigning and advocacy organisation, we are do-ers. And we knew we work to unite the global mental health community to call for action in light of COVID-19, and facilitate collaboration and learning about what to do throughout this time.
Together with the Lancet Psychiatry, Mental Health Innovation Network, MHPSS.net, and with support from members of the Global Mental Health Action Network, we devised a new, weekly webinar series bringing in mental health policy makers and practitioners, advocates with lived experience, and researchers exploring the latest on COVID-19, to discuss and share the latest knowledge on COVID-19 and mental health. It was proposed that we would run the series for three months...
Nine months and 27 webinars later, it is fair to say that the webinar series has progressed more than we would have imagined! Since April, 100 panellists, from more than 40 countries have shared their knowledge and answered the questions of over 6000 live attendees. Thousands more have read the notes and watched the recordings of the webinars. In the summer the remit of the series expanded, to reach beyond COVID-19, and tackle topics that are crucially synonymous to global mental health; from substance use to media, HIV and TB, to stigma.
In this time the membership of the Global Mental Health Action Network has doubled from 500 to 1000 members and from 0 to over 500 members of its LinkedIn group. The webinars, growing Network membership and other activities to help unite the global mental health community has demonstrated the desire to learn from one another and share information about what can be done to improve the mental health of people all over the world, in the time of COVID-19.
Studies show that over the past year, mental health conditions have doubled, or even tripled in many parts of the world. With this tragedy, there is an urgency like we have never seen before, to innovate, reform; and address mental health on a global scale. The diversity of speakers on the webinars has brought up fascinating conversations, and comparisons, of cross-setting adaptations and innovations.
Speakers from South Africa, Kenya, Ireland, Israel, and New Zealand, have all spoken about adapting their services, moving counselling online, setting up virtual peer-support groups, and innovating at incredible speed. In Ireland St Patrick’s Mental Health Service, who serve about 10% of the population, were able to revolutionise how they deliver care within a matter of weeks. Within just two and a half weeks all outpatient appointments were transitioned to remote attendance, and about a quarter of inpatients are now being treated via a home care service. “We plan to continue this into the future as it has been surprisingly effective,”as Paul Fearon explained. ThriveGulu in Uganda, set up radio shows, and drove around under-served areas in a van, mounted with loudspeakers to ensure communities received information on mental health and wellbeing, as well as signposting for support. In Israel, the Israeli Mental Health Association fundraised and received donations for mobile phones and data, so that they could reach the most marginalised people.
COVID-19 has also provided an opportunity to highlight the need for quality, integrated mental services among politicians and policy makers. When the UN Secretary General released a policy brief on mental health and COVID-19, an open letter was released with the signatures of over 1000 leaders calling for investment in mental health and ninety-five member states signed a letter of support calling on the United Nations, Member States and all actors concerned to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic.
Integration of mental health to strengthen health services has been a key theme running throughout these webinars; “we need to see health as an investment, not a cost”, as Githinji Gitahi, the Global CEO, AMREF Health Africa and Co-chair of UHC2030, pointed out. In Ghana, the CEO of the Mental Health Authority Ghana spoke about plans to train every health worker in mhGAP, and mental health first aid, in order to expand the role of community mental health care. In a recent webinar on Mental Health, HIV and TB, Neerja Chowdhary of the WHO highlighted that the WHO strategy explicitly calls for HIV and TB mental health support to be integrated into a person-centred approach.
A person-centred approach is vital to ensuring mental health services are rights-based and of good quality, this has been highlighted time and time again by the many lived experience advocates we have been lucky enough to profile through the webinars. In fact, one of the key successes of this long running webinar series has been the diverse and inspiring speakers, each of whom has brought their expertise and passion to the forefront of the discussion. We must continue to work together to amplify and listen to the voices of people with lived experience; we have a collective responsibility to fight stigma, and ensure diverse voices are heard.
It is fair to say that, although COVID-19 has had a hugely detrimental impact on people’s mental health across populations and societies, it has also brought about great social change and an opportunity to potentially change mental health services for the better. We have been delighted to play our small part in ensuring that mental health is not forgotten and to try and enable people to share the latest information about what can be done to help ensure good mental health for all.
The Mental Health For All webinar series will continue into 2021, with the first two sessions focussing on COVID-19 and mental health and the second two sessions focused on Human Rights. Sign up here.
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