New Delhi: The world saw a massive 25% increase in anxiety and depression cases in the first year of COVID-19 pandemic, mainly because of social isolation, according the analysis conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The social isolation, linked to constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities, has been cited as one major reason for the unprecedented increase in stress during the period.
“Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement and financial worries have also all been cited as stressors leading to anxiety and depression,” the global body said.
Among health workers, exhaustion has been a major trigger for suicidal thinking, the analysis showed.
By the end of 2021, the situation had somewhat improved but today too many people remain unable to get the care and support they need for both pre-existing and newly developed mental health conditions, it said.
The brief also highlights who has been most affected and summarizes the effect of the pandemic on the availability of mental health services and how this has changed during the pandemic.
“Concerns about potential increases in mental health conditions had already prompted 90% of countries surveyed to include mental health and psychosocial support in their COVID-19 response plans, but major gaps and concerns remain,” it said.
“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health,” he said.
The brief is informed by a comprehensive review of existing evidence about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and mental health services.
It includes estimates from the latest Global Burden of Disease study.
It shows that the pandemic has affected the mental health of young people and that they are disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviours.
It also indicates that women have been more severely impacted than men and that people with pre-existing physical health conditions, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease, were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.
Data suggests that people with pre-existing mental disorders do not appear to be disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
Yet, when these people do become infected, they are more likely to suffer hospitalization, severe illness and death compared with people without mental disorders.
People with more severe mental disorders, such as psychoses, and young people with mental disorders, are particularly at risk.
This increase in the prevalence of mental health problems has coincided with severe disruptions to mental health services, leaving huge gaps in care for those who need it most.
For much of the pandemic, services for mental, neurological and substance use conditions were the most disrupted among all essential health services reported by WHO Member States.
Many countries also reported major disruptions in life-saving services for mental health, including for suicide prevention, the WHO said.
Unable to access face-to-face care, many people have sought support online, signaling an urgent need to make reliable and effective digital tools available and easily accessible.
However, developing and deploying digital interventions remains a major challenge in resource-limited countries and settings, the WHO said.
WHO Member States have recognized the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and are taking action, it said.
WHO’s most recent pulse survey on continuity of essential health services indicated that 90% of countries are working to provide mental health and psychosocial support to COVID-19 patients and responders alike, the global health body said.
Moreover, at last year’s World Health Assembly, countries emphasized the need to develop and strengthen mental health and psychosocial support services as part of strengthening preparedness, response and resilience to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies.
They adopted the updated Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030, which includes an indicator on preparedness for mental health and psychosocial support in public health emergencies.