Frontline Health Workers Critical to Improving Mental Health Response During and After COVID-19 Pandemic 
healthcare workers
Nurses celebrate Nurses Appreciation Week in New York City, 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, and particularly community health workers who have been the backbone of local and national health systems during the COVID crisis, are also unsung ‘first responders’ to the massive mental health fallout from the pandemic, now and going forward.  

That is the central theme of a webinar panel on ‘COVID-19 and Frontline Workers’, Wednesday, 30th June, 13:00 – 15:00 CET, which featuring COVID response and mental health experts from the World Health Organization, the International Council of Nurses and consumer groups.

The panel is sponsored by the Geneva-based Global Self-Care Federation with Health Policy Watch serving as media partners for the event.    

Protecting Healthcare Workers’ Wellbeing Through Inclusive Mental Health Care

While the tireless work of nurses and healthcare professionals has been championed and celebrated throughout the pandemic, those workers have, for the most part, been ‘largely absent from the mental health discourse’, said Judy Stenmark, Director-General of GSCF, in a recent blog post on mental health

Stenmark calls for a more ‘more inclusive approach that brings all stakeholders into the equation’ to both consider the mental health needs of health workers during the pandemic period – as well as optimising their contribution to community-based mental health response.

“Without healthcare workers, there’s no chance we will see this pandemic through. Therefore, a greater consideration of self-care for healthcare workers is essential as we learn more about the consequences of the pandemic on healthcare systems,” she said in her blog, adding: Unless we take proactive measures to ensure staff are safe at work and have sustainable working conditions – we’re at risk of losing the means that make healthcare possible.”

WHO Action Plan Extension Receives Wide Support During WHA

The Maldives’ delegate at the 74th World Health Assembly on Monday.

Those messages also echo ones heard during last month’s 74th World Health Assembly, in which WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a rethinking of mental health treatment and delivery: 

“One day this pandemic will be over – but many of the psychological scars linked to the pandemic will stay with us for a long, long time,” he stated, at the Assembly, in which a special session saw WHO officials and member states acknowledging how the ‘mass trauma’ of COVID-19 has worsened mental health worldwide. 

A draft decision endorsing an updated version of WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan also was adopted during the 74th WHA. 

The updated WHO Action Plan will include a greater forums on suicide prevention, workplace mental health, universal health coverage, mental health of children, mental health across the life course, and the involvement of people with lived experience of mental health conditions. 

“It is crucial to prioritize the actions to minimize mental health consequences of the pandemic and incorporate these actions into emergency and disaster risk management strategies,” said Asim Ahmed, Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Maldives to the UN in Geneva, during the 74th WHA. 

Incorporating Mental Health into COVID-19 Response Plans 

Mental health services for children and adolescents have been disrupted due to COVID-19

During the pandemic, WHO and its Member States have also worked to incorporate mental health and psychosocial support into COVID-19 response plans.   That has included WHO’s development of a wide range of resources in collaboration with partners, including: a stress management guide for the general public; a guide for COVID-19 responders on basic psychosocial skills; and a toolkit to help older adults maintain mental well-being.

  • “Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide” is a stress management guide aimed at equipping people with practical skills to help cope with stress, especially in the early stages of the pandemic. 
  • The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, co-chaired by the WHO and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has created an illustrated guide aimed at building basic psychosocial skills among all essential workers responding to COVID-19. 
  • The group has also produced a storybook for children, “My Hero is You, how kids can fight COVID-19”, to help children of 6-11 years learn how to protect themselves, their families and friends from coronavirus, and how to manage difficult emotions during the pandemic. 
  • A sequel that addresses the concerns of children during the current stage of the pandemic is planned for the third quarter of 2021. 

New WHO Guidance on Community-Based Mental Health Alternatives

A lay counsellor on the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe – part of an innovative community-based mental health programme rolled out in the country.

With community-based services the backbone of better mental health services, WHO has recently highlighted successful examples of person-centered and rights-based community mental health services from across the world in a new report, released on 10 June.  

The report, ‘Guidance on community mental health service: promoting person-centered and rights-based approaches’, offers over two-dozen peer-reviewed examples of mental health services around the world that demonstrated good practices that are non-coercive, incorporate the community, and respect people’s agency, or their right to make decisions about their treatment and life.  

These include examples of cost-effective initiatives in low- and middle-income countries that promote frontline health workers, social workers, trained lay experts, and guided self-care networks as a backbone of service delivery to people in need. Examples include initiatives such as the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe, Atmiyata in India, as well as self-help groups, such as Kenya’s Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (USP-Kenya).  

These services also feature alternative methods of treatment that ireduce compulsory hospitalization, over-prescription of anti-psychotic drugs – and critically, incorporate the voices of those with their own experiences with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities through peer-support groups. 

“[The value of peer-support groups] has been about restoring power, voice, and choice to persons with psychosocial disabilities,” said USP-Kenya CEO Michael Njenga.

Nurses and healthcare workers are the frontline of the health workforce



Image Credits: R Santos, Raisa Santos , WHO, WHO/NOOR/Sebastian Liste, Tim Kubacki/Flick.

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