The United Nations is calling for mental health care to be given to millions of people suffering psychological distress from fear, loneliness, economic upheaval and any abuse triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. A U.N. policy brief, “COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health,” issued by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, explores the issues brought on by the crisis and offers recommendations.
National surveys carried out this year reveal widespread prevalence of distress in populations, with levels as high as 35 percent in China, 60 percent in Iran and 45 percent in the United States. Similar studies among health care workers find anxiety levels have risen an average of 45 percent in countries such as Canada, China and Pakistan.
Devora Kestel, director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, said measures must be taken now to protect and promote care for such existing conditions.
“This is something that needs to be done in the middle of the crisis so that we can prevent things to become worse in the near future,” Kesel said. “We are all witnessing in every country of the world the risk of an economic turmoil that will affect people.”
Kestel said mental health problems have surged during similar economic crises in the past, leading to high rates of suicide.
One of the major recommendations in the U.N. secretary-general’s policy brief is to ensure mental health and psychosocial support are widely available in any emergency.
What may be feasible in rich countries may not be possible in the developing world. For example, WHO noted one in five people in South Sudan has a mental health condition, with only one professional available for every 4 million people.
Kestel told VOA that the WHO and other agencies have been working for years to strengthen the capacity of nonmental health professionals to provide care.
“We are promoting the modalities where the community, some community leaders or sectors within the community, such as traditional healers, in some context could receive the basic knowledge and training that is needed in order to provide care to those in need,” Kestel said.
The United Nations said psychological trauma will remain after COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is gone. It urged nations to reform, strengthen and invest more money in their mental health care systems. It said these services will be needed to support societies as they recover from the terrible consequences of this life-changing event.