Warning that the COVID-19 crisis is increasing “psychological suffering", UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for an ambitious commitments from countries to address mental health issues arising from the coronavirus pandemic, amid a potential global spike in suicides and drug abuse.
Ahead of the upcoming World Health Assembly in Geneva, UN Secretary General in a video message launching a policy briefing on Wednesday urged the international community to do much more to protect all those facing mounting mental pressures.
“Mental health is at the core of our humanity. It enables us to lead rich and fulfilling lives and to participate in our communities. But the COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering,” Guterres said.
Launching the UN policy brief - COVID-19 And The Need for Action On Mental Health – Guterres highlighted how those most at risk today were “frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis. We must help them and stand by them.”
Guterres said even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities.
“Mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to COVID-19. They must be expanded and fully funded. Policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions, and protect their human rights and dignity. Lockdowns and quarantines must not discriminate against those with poor mental health,” he said.
Urging governments, civil society, health authorities and others to come together urgently to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic, Guterres called on governments in particular to announce ambitious commitments on mental health at the upcoming World Health Assembly.
The message was echoed by Director, Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization (WHO) Dévora Kestel who pointed to past economic crises that had “increased the number of people with mental health issues, leading to higher rates of suicide for example, due to their mental health condition or substance abuse.
The UN chief highlighted how psychological problems such as depression and anxiety “are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.”
He noted how throughout his life “and in my own family, I have been close to doctors and psychiatrists treating these conditions,” and how he had become “acutely aware of the suffering they cause. This suffering is often exacerbated by stigma and discrimination.”
According to the UN guidelines, depression and anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic cost the global economy more than USD 1 trillion per year.
Depression affects 264 million people in the world, while around half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, with suicide the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15 to 29.
The UN paper also highlights a warning from The Lancet Commission On Global Mental Health And Sustainable Development, that “many people who previously coped well, are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic.”
All this is understandable, given the many uncertainties facing people, the UN policy brief notes, before identifying the growing use of addictive coping strategies, including alcohol, drugs, tobacco and online gaming.
In Canada, one report indicated that 20 per cent of the population aged 15-49 have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic
“During the COVID-19 emergency, people are afraid of infection, dying, and losing family members,” the UN recommendations said.
“At the same time, vast numbers of people have lost or are at risk of losing their livelihoods, have been socially isolated and separated from loved ones, and, in some countries, have experienced stay-at-home orders implemented in drastic ways.
Specifically, women and children are at greater physical and mental risk as they have experienced increased domestic violence and abuse, the UN paper affirms.
At the same time, misinformation about the virus and prevention measures, coupled with deep uncertainty about the future, are additional major sources of distress, while “the knowledge that people may not have the opportunity to say goodbye to dying loved ones and may not be able to hold funerals for them, further contributes to distress.”
National data from populations around the world would appear to confirm this increased mental vulnerability, Kestel said, citing surveys “showing an increase of prevalence of distress of 35 per cent of the population surveyed in China, 60 per cent in Iran, and 45 per cent in the US.”
General symptoms caused by COVID-19 include headaches, impaired sense of smell and taste, agitation, delirium and stroke, according to the UN paper.
Underlying neurological conditions also increase the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19, it notes, while stress, social isolation and violence in the family are likely to affect brain health and development in young children and adolescents.
Social isolation reduced physical activity and reduced intellectual stimulation increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults, it adds.