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The World Health Organisation’s (WHO)  Scientific Brief ‘Mental Health and COVID-19: Early evidence of the pandemic’s impact’ findings showed a significant increase in mental health problems in the general population in the first year of the pandemic. On Tuesday 8th March, the #MHForAll webinar series brought together a panel of experts to discuss these findings and to consider what needs to be done to protect the world’s mental health from future pandemics. 


This session was chaired by Carmen Valle-Trabadelo (IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support, Fundación Instituto Centta). The key findings of the WHO Scientific Brief were presented by Prof. Dr. Marit Sijbrandij (Vrije University, WHO Collaborating Centre). The panellists for the discussion included: 

  • Dr. Mark van Ommeren (WHO)
  • Prof. Brigitte Khoury  (American University of Beirut Medical Centre)
  • Judy Kariuki (BasicNeeds Kenya)

You can watch the full recording of the webinar here.

Dr. Mark van Ommeren explained that over 10,000 articles have been written on COVID-19 and mental health since the pandemic began. However, the quality of these publications vary significantly. Mark added that much of the research has lacked the necessary baseline needed for comparative studies due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, and these studies often relied on non-validated measures to draw conclusions. The WHO Scientific Brief addresses the data gap in this field, and provides a comprehensive and systematic review of both new and existing research on this topic.


All panellists noted that they had been expecting the data to show that global mental health had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. The Scientific Brief verified this as the data found that depression and anxiety increased by 25% across the world. Dr. Marit Sijbrandij explained that factors such as exhaustion, loneliness and a positive COVID-19 diagnosis led to higher cases of suicidal thoughts amongst young people and limited access to support further impacted risk groups such as people in humanitarian and conflict settings, individuals with pre-existing health conditions and mental health disorders, and those suffering with long COVID-19. 


Professor Brigitte Khoury highlighted that isolation and social restrictions seem to have had the greatest impact on people’s mental health as it goes against our innate nature to socialise with others. She explained that the psychological impact of the pandemic will likely last longer than the pandemic itself, highlighting that pandemic response needs to effectively incorporate short-term provisions for support as well as longer-term considerations of the lasting implications of the pandemic. 


There have been some cases of effective pandemic response. E-mental health services were introduced to mitigate some of the issues around access - though this was only successful in regions with high levels of tech literacy and a well established digital infrastructure. Judy Kariuki added that mental health climbed up the national political agenda in Kenya as many individuals participated in social media campaigns to destigmatise mental health and engaged with community-based support apps during regional lockdowns. She highlighted that recent efforts to decriminalise suicide have been catalysed by the introduction of the 'mental health action plan,' which was published in June 2021. 


Still, all panellists concluded that much more needs to be done to safeguard people’s mental health from future emergencies, with access to care being highlighted as one of the key problem areas. The effective integration of mental health in future pandemic response and recovery requires increased funding for mental health institutions focusing on service delivery and prevention, says Judy. Marit echoed this, stating that investment in accessible interventions is of utmost priority and Mark added that social determinants should be considered in service-delivery. Brigitte suggested that health and mental health workers need to be trained to support individuals during emergencies noting that the integration of “mental health services as an integral part of medical services is needed.” 


Next steps include conducting additional research to update the Scientific Brief with new data and explore a broader scope as currently the “number of questions that are not answered are greater,” says Mark. He notes that future pandemic response and recovery plans should be informed by the existing findings on COVID-19 and mental health, and will benefit from the use of a psychosocial lens. Carmen Valle-Trabadelo concluded the session with the reminder that mental health is a fundamental part of our health and noted that this new focus on global mental health should not be lost.