Address virus-related mental health needs
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. The distress it has caused globally is immeasurable. The deadly pandemic has launched a war on humanity on two fronts — health and economy. The virus has killed at least 297,259 people since it surfaced in China late last year, according to an AFP tally. There have been more than 4,362,090 officially recorded cases in 196 countries and territories. Battered economies have thrown millions of people out of work, compounding their woes. Consequently, there can be no denying that psychological suffering has increased across the globe. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has rightly urged governments, civil society and health authorities to urgently address mental health needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic. A potential global spike in suicides and drug abuse is a huge cause for worry. Grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, and uncertainty and fear for the future have all combined to spike the stress levels among one and all. As Guterres points out, those most at risk and in need of help are front-line health care workers, older people, adolescents, young people, those with preexisting mental health conditions, and those caught up in conflict and crisis. According to the UN guidelines, depression and anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic cost the global economy more than $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. A warning from The Lancet Commission On Global Mental Health And Sustainable Development has also clearly highlighted that many people who previously coped well, are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic. In Canada, one report indicated that 20 per cent of the population aged 15-49 have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. At the same time, misinformation about the virus and prevention measures, coupled with deep uncertainty about the future, are additional major sources of distress. Dévora Kestel, Director, Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization (WHO), has cited national data from populations around the world that appear to confirm this increased mental vulnerability, 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. As per UN officials, there were some surveys that were done in Canada where 47 per cent of healthcare workers reported the need for psychological support – 47 per cent – so almost half of them. A key part of the UN appeal is for mental health care to be incorporated into all Governments’ COVID-19 strategies, given that national average expenditure on it is just two per cent. Frequent misinformation and rumours about the virus and deep uncertainty about the future are also common sources of distress and should be shunned. There is certainly a huge need for widespread availability of emergency mental health and psychological support during the pandemic. The UN has also correctly pointed out the need for development of mental health services for the future “to support society’s recovery from COVID-19.”