New briefing paper: COVID-19 is a pivotal moment for global mental health

In the past few weeks UnitedGMH and its partners – Lancet Psychiatry, and the Mental Health Innovation Network – have been holding weekly webinars to explore the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and what actions can be taken to prevent and respond accordingly. Our new briefing paper summarises the conversations held and the key trends identified. It also reflects the data and recommendations of the United Nations Policy Brief on COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health that was released by the UN Secretary General in May.

Studies are showing that COVID-19 is raising levels of stress and anxiety across societies, exacerbating existing mental health symptoms and triggering a relapse. Even for those not directly impacted by COVID-19, the effects of social isolation and economic fallout are being felt widely.

At the same time, people with existing mental health conditions are facing disruption to care, medication and support services, as services have gone digital, to varying degrees of success, and mental health staff and facilities diverted to care for COVID-19 patients. The human rights of those living with mental ill health are being threatened.

“I feel deeply for my patients during lockdown as almost all of them are finding it very difficult to get their medication. They live far away from the hospital, we are facing medication shortages and other clinics and hospitals that provide mental health services are not functioning now. This means that already vulnerable patients are at greater risk.”

– Klubo Mulbah, E.S Grant Memorial Mental Health Hospital, Monrovia. 

The pandemic is also having significant mental health impacts on COVID-19 patients and their families – as they cope with fear, anxiety and stigma. A study among hospitalised patients in China showed that 34.7% of patients had symptoms of anxiety and 28.4% of depression.

Frontline workers – as they play a crucial role in fighting the outbreak – are under exceptional stress and are at a particularly high risk of mental ill health. The impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of the elderly, children and people in humanitarian settings are also well documented. A current concern is the rapid escalation of the pandemic among the poorest and most marginalised communities – and especially among those living in conflict or humanitarian settings.

Though we face unprecedented challenges – we are seeing an increased awareness in the importance of mental health and a range of innovative responses. We are also seeing communities create their own solutions and respond by building connections among different groups and support one another.

This is a pivotal moment – how the world tackles these challenges now will determine the wellbeing of a generation. We need a sustained effort to improve mental health over the coming months and years, as the full impact of COVID-19 is felt by communities around the world. An Open Letter, powered by Speak Your Mind, and calling on global leaders to fully integrate mental health in their COVID-19 responses has received over 1000 signatures in less than a month.

“COVID-19 has exposed the serious gaps in mental healthcare, and now more than ever, world leaders need to prioritise and ensure that quality mental health support is accessible to everyone, everywhere.” Ingrid Daniels, President, World Federation for Mental Health. 

Recommendations for national and global leaders on how to respond and ensure that we build back better include:

  • Fully integrate mental health into all COVID-19 response and recovery plans
  • Apply a whole of society approach to promote, protect and care for mental health
  • Ensure widespread availability of emergency mental health and psychosocial support
  • Support recovery from COVID-19 by building mental health services for the future
  • Increase funding for mental health as part of COVID-19 response and recovery plans
  • Leverage innovations created during COVID-19 for the future
  • Ensure mental health is built into Universal Health Coverage plans

Now, more than ever, it’s #TimeToInvest and prioritise our collective mental health which is under pressure during these extraordinary times.