A mental health crisis is looming as millions of people are affected by deaths, disease, poverty, and isolation. All of these factors could cause severe psychological distress. The U.N. warns that due to the stress faced by people in physical isolation, a mental health crisis is approaching.
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Mental health pressures
In the U.N. report and policy guidance on COVID-19 and mental health, health experts urged populations across the globe to protect all those facing mounting mental pressures. The U.N. policy brief was launched ahead of the upcoming World Health Assembly in Geneva.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted how the vulnerable populations, including health workers in the frontlines, older people, young individuals, adolescents, and those with pre-existing mental health problems, could be caught in the turmoil of stress and anxiety.
The U.N. also found that even before the coronavirus pandemic has started, depression has affected about 264 million people worldwide, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29. The numbers are higher in developing countries, especially in regions beset by poverty, violence, and other conditions like those created by the coronavirus.
"The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future," Mr. Guterres said.
He added that mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are some of the significant causes of misery worldwide. With the ongoing stress caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to the pandemic. These services should be fully funded alongside fighting the novel coronavirus.
"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. As we recover from the pandemic, we must shift more mental health services to the community, and make sure mental health is included in universal health coverage," Mr. Guterres said.
The policy brief also sheds light on how people cope with the ongoing pandemic and mental health pressures. It states that many people who previously coped well are now less able to do so due to multiple stressors experienced at the same time.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused great distress among people, with most facing significant uncertainties. As a result, there is a growing use of addictive coping strategies, such as online gaming, alcohol consumption, using drugs, and cigarette smoking.
In Canada, a report showed that 20 percent of people between 15 and 49 had increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
"During the COVID-19 emergency, people are afraid of infection, dying, and losing family members. 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," the policy reads.
UN chief on COVID-19 and the need for action on mental health
Minimize mental health consequences
The policy brief on mental health says that psychological stress in populations amid the coronavirus pandemic is widespread. People are distressed due to the immediate health impacts of the virus, as well as the consequences of lockdowns and physical isolation.
The policy also states steps to minimize the mental health consequences of the pandemic, including applying a whole society approach to promote, protect, and care for mental health, ensure availability of emergency mental health support, and support recovery from COVID-19 by building mental health services.
"Rapid implementation of these recommended actions will be essential to ensure people and societies are better protected from the mental health impact of COVID-19," the policy reads.
In Australia, the Victorian government will publish scientific modeling on mental health. It predicts that if urgent action is not implemented, about 370,000 more people in the state will seek treatment or be hospitalized in the next three years due to mental health problems fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. The report further includes that hundreds of more deaths due to suicide will occur each year.
The state aims to impose steps to combat the mental health crisis. The Victorian modeling, developed by Professor Patrick McGorry's Orygen research institute, projects the state's young people will suffer more, with an extra 82,000 people aged 12 to 24 expected to undergo treatment if the government does not act.
Professor McGorry emphasized that mental health should be treated with the same urgency as the pandemic itself.