COVID-19 Disrupting Mental Health Services in Most Countries

According to a recent WHO (World Health Organization) survey, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted and even brought critical mental health services to a halt in 93% of countries across the world while the demand for mental healthcare is on the rise. Findings from the survey, conducted among 130 countries, revealed the severe impact of COVID-19 on access to mental health services, such as alcohol addiction therapy, and emphasized the importance of increased funding.

This survey was published prior to the upcoming WHO’s Big Event for Mental Health. On October 10th, WHO will hold an online advocacy event that will see world leaders, mental health experts and celebrities come together to raise awareness on the need for increased investments in mental health in the aftermath of COVID-19.

The World Health Organisation has previously brought to light the long-standing underfunding of mental health services: mental health accounted for less than 2% of most countries’ national budget before the pandemic, and governments were struggling to meet their population’s needs.

The demand for mental health services is at an all-time high, which is in large part due to the pandemic. Issues such as loss of income, isolation, grief and the aggravation of already existing problems are triggering mental health conditions. A lot of people are dealing with elevated levels of anxiety, alcohol & drug use and insomnia. At the same time, COVID-19 itself has been found to cause neurological and mental issues, including agitation, stroke and delirium. Persons suffering from pre-existing neurological, mental or substance use disorders are more prone to SARS-CoV-2 infection – they are at a higher risk of suffering severe complications or even death.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO‘s Director-General, states that good mental health is key to overall health and wellbeing. He adds that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services throughout the world right when they are most needed. It has become crucial for world leaders to act quickly and decisively to increase funding in critical mental health programmes, not only during the pandemic but going forward.

Survey Reveals Major Disruptions in Crucial Mental Health Services

The survey was carried out from June to August 2020 in 130 countries spread across WHO’s six regions. It tries to determine how COVID-19 has affected the provision of neurological, mental health and substance use services, the kinds of services that have been interrupted in the wake of the pandemic, and what measures governments across the world are putting in place to mitigate these challenges.

Countries indicated extensive disruption of many types of crucial mental health services:

More than 60% of the participating countries reported disruption of mental health services for vulnerable people, including women in need of antenatal and postnatal care (61%), elderly adults (70%), and children and adolescents (72%).

Sixty-seven percent experienced an interruption of counselling and psychotherapy services; 65% to crucial harm reduction services and 45% to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for individuals with a dependence on opioids.

Over one-third (35%) saw interruption of emergency intervention services, including those for individuals suffering from chronic seizures, adverse drug use withdrawal symptoms and delirium – a common symptom of people with a severe underlying medical condition.

Thirty percent indicated interruption of access to medications for neurological, mental and drug use disorders.

About three-quarters saw the full or partial disruption of workplace and school mental health services (75% and 78% respectively).

Even though most countries (70%) have employed teletherapy or telemedicine to deal with disruptions to in-person services, there are major inconsistencies in how these interventions have been implemented. Above 80% of higher-income countries have indicated adopting teletherapy and telemedicine to fill the gaps in mental health services, as opposed to below 50% of low-income countries.

WHO has provided guidance on how countries can maintain essential services including services dealing with mental health during the pandemic and advises that governments need to dedicate sufficient resources to mental health as a crucial part of their response and recovery strategies. WHO also encourages countries to monitor how services are being affected in order to address them appropriately.

While 89% of countries indicated that mental health and psychological support is a crucial part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only about 17% of these have full funding to cover these activities.

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