Statement on WHO COVID-19 and mental health impact report

Yesterday the World Health Organisation (WHO) released the findings of a global survey evaluating how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to COVID-19, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges.

 WHO surveyed 130 countries across six regions who reported widespread disruption of many kinds of critical mental health services:

  • Over 60% reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72%), older adults (70%), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61%).
  • 67% saw disruptions to counselling and psychotherapy; 65% to critical harm reduction services; and 45% to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for opioid dependence.
  • More than a third (35%) 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.
  • 30% reported disruptions to access for medications for mental, neurological and substance use disorders.
  • Around three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services (78% and 75% respectively).

Unfortunately, these devastating results come as no surprise. Those following our reporting on the effects of the pandemic on mental health through our weekly webinars or briefings will know that the disruption to mental health systems and the disproportionate effect of vulnerable people was predicted. These findings only compound the evidence already demonstrating higher rates of distress, depression and anxiety in affected populations, and that mental ill health typically rises during economic recession – at the precise time the world needs mental health support the systems and safety nets are being removed.

Although 89% of countries reported that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17% of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities. We acknowledge that most health systems in the world are currently under extreme pressure and making very difficult decisions however we strongly urge all countries to follow the WHO issued guidance on how to maintain essential services – including mental health services – during COVID-19 that recommends that countries allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans. This would build on the 95 member states of the UN who in July answered the UN Secretary General’s call and committed to putting mental health front and centre of their responses to, and recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental resilience in the face of uncertainty is critically important. Individuals, business and society as a whole need to ensure sufficient investment in addressing mental health now and in the future as we face global uncertainty — national governments need to realise this, show leadership and act quickly.