COVID-19 Is Disrupting Mental Health Services In A Majority Of Countries

A new WHO survey reports that in 93% of countries in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has halted or disrupted essential mental health services while the demand is increasing for mental health services. This survey of 130 countries offers the first worldwide data that shows the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on access to mental health services and highlights how urgently increased funding is needed for gambling addiction treatment and many more.

The WHO survey was published before their Big Event for Mental Health – which is a global online advocacy event taking place on 10 October where world leaders, advocates, and celebrities will come together to call for increased investments in mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past, WHO has highlighted mental health’s chronic underfunding. Before the pandemic, countries were investing less than 2 per cent of their budgets for national health on mental health services and were struggling to meet the needs of their populations.

The pandemic has increased the demand even more for mental health services. Fear, loss of income, isolation, and bereavement are exacerbating existing mental health conditions or triggering new ones. Many people are faced with increased levels of anxiety, insomnia, drug use, and alcohol use. In the meantime, COVID-10 itself may result in mental and neurological complications, including stroke, agitation, and delirium. Individuals with pre-existing substance use, neurological, or mental disorders are more vulnerable as well to SARS-CoV-2 infection. They might be at higher risk for serious outcomes or even death.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, WHO Director-General, says that good mental health is critical to overall well-being and health. He says that COVID-19 has interrupted vital mental health services all over the world at a time when they are needed the most. Leaders around the world must act decisively and quickly to invest in mental health programmes to save lives – both now during this pandemic and into the future.

The Survey found significant disruptions to essential mental health services

This survey was conducted from June through August 2020 across WHO’s six regions among 130 countries. It evaluated how the provision of substance use, neurological and mental health services have changed due to COVID-19, the kinds of services that have seen disruptions, and how countries are trying to adapt to overcome the challenges.

Widespread disruption was reported by countries of many types of essential health services

More than 60% of countries reported mental health service disruptions for vulnerable people, including women who require postnatal or antenatal services (61%), older adults (70%), and adolescents and children (72%).

45% experienced disruptions to opioid agonist maintenance treatment used for treating opioid dependence, 65% saw disruptions to critical harm reduction services, and 67% had disruptions to psychotherapy and counselling,

Other a third (35%) of countries reported disruptions to their emergency intervention, including for individuals who experience serious substance use withdrawal syndromes, prolonged seizures, and delirium, which is frequently a sign of a severe underlying medical condition.

30% of countries reported disruptions to medication access for substance use, neurological, and mental disorders.

About three-quarter of countries reported partial disruptions at least to their workplace and school mental health services (75% and 78% respectively)

Although numerous countries (70%) have adopted tele-therapy or telemedicine to overcome the disruptions for in-person services, significant disparities exist in the use of these interventions. Over 80% of high-income countries have deployed tele-therapy and telemedicine to help bridge the gaps in mental health services, while among low-income countries, adoption is less than 50%.

Guidance has been issued by WHO on how essential services can be maintained during COVID-19, including mental health services. It recommends that resources be allocated by countries to mental health services as an integral component of their recovery and response plans. WHO also encourages countries to monitor disruptions and changes in services to allow them to be addressed when necessary.

Although 89% of countries in the survey reported that psychosocial support and mental health services are included in their national COVID-19 response plans, just 17% of the countries have obtained full funding to cover those activities.

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