COVID-19 disrupted mental health services in 93% countries: WHO

Representational image

New Delhi (NVI): The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide despite increased demands for these services, according to a new WHO survey.

The World Health Organization (WHO) survey conducted in 130 countries provides the first global data showing the devastating impact of COVID-19 on access to mental health services and underscores the urgent need for increased funding.

According to WHO, bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke. People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection, they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO said, “Good mental health is absolutely fundamental to overall health and well-being.”

“COVID-19 has interrupted essential mental health services around the world just when they’re needed most. World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life-saving mental health programmes ̶ during the pandemic and beyond,” Tedros added.

The survey was conducted between June to August this year, covering 130 countries across WHO’s six regions, evaluated how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to COVID-19, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting.

It showed that many countries (70 per cent) have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome disruptions to in-person services, there were significant disparities among them. More than 80 per cent of high-income countries reported deploying telemedicine and teletherapy to bridge gaps in mental health, compared with less than 50 per cent of low-income countries, the WHO said.

Findings also showed that counselling and psychotherapy were disrupted in 67 per cent of the countries, 65 per cent reported impact on critical harm reduction services, and 45 per cent on treatment for opioid dependence.

More than a third (35 per cent) reported disruptions to emergency interventions, including those for people experiencing prolonged seizures, severe substance use withdrawal syndromes, and delirium, often a sign of a serious underlying medical condition, the UN agency said.

“Three in ten countries also reported disrupted access for medications for mental, neurological and substance use disorders,” it added.

Moreover, the survey was published ahead of WHO’s Big Event for Mental Health ̶ a global online advocacy event on October 10, which will highlight the need for increased investments in mental health in the wake of COVID-19.

WHO has also issued guidance to countries on how to maintain essential services ̶ including mental health services  during COVID-19 and recommends that countries allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans.

According to the survey results, 89 per cent of countries reported that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17 per cent of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities.

“This all highlights the need for more money for mental health,” said WHO, adding that, As the pandemic continues, even greater demand will be placed on national and international mental health programmes that have suffered from years of chronic underfunding.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries were spending 2 per cent of national health budgets on mental health which is not enough. Therefore, the international funders also need to do more mental health still receives less than 1 per cent of international aid earmarked for health, WHO said.