Over 90% Of The World’s Countries Report Disruptions Of Critical Mental Health Services – WHO Survey 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted mental health services in 93% of countries at a time when they are most needed, concludes a new WHO survey, released Monday. The survey is based on data from 130 WHO countries gathered between June and August 2020.

Despite rising awareness of the enormous strain that the pandemic has placed on the mental health of people in rich and poor countries alike – as well as mounting research evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can also cause or exacerbate neurological conditions – most of the world’s countries are facing massive shortfalls in funding for mental, neurological and substance use services.

WHO’s director of the Mental Health and Substance Use department Dévora Kestel

And these are exactly the kinds of services that are most needed now – as people face huge economic losses, disruption in school and social plans, and increased isolation as a result of the measures taken to contain the virus spread.  

“We want to make sure that people in need of attention receive the care they deserve and need,” aid WHO’s director of the Mental Health and Substance Use, Dévora Kestel, at a WHO press briefing. “And so we want to make sure that there is better, [and] more investment on essential services for mental, neurological, and substance use [disorders].” 

While nine out of 10 countries surveyed have included mental health and psychosocial support within their national COVID-19 response plans, less than one-fifth have allocated enough funding to implement those plans, according to the report, published just days before World Mental Health is observed on 10 October, including WHO’s Big Event for Mental Health.

“The problem is that only 17% of countries have the funding for the implementation of [mental health and psychosocial] plans,” added Kestel.

Even though evidence-based interventions in mental health are highly cost-effective, mental health funding has stagnated at less than 2% of national health budgets, according to WHO.

The data were collected by WHO through a web-based survey completed by mental health focal points at ministries of health between June and August 2020. 

Children And Adolescents Most Affected By Mental Health Service Disruption

Children and adolescents are the most severely affected by mental health service disruptions

Children, adolescents and older people were the most severely affected groups, said the report. Disruptions in services for these groups were reported by 70% of countries, especially mental health promotion and prevention services in schools. 

Almost two-thirds of mental health services in schools or workplaces were wholly or partially disrupted, warned the report. Only 30% of mental health services for children and adolescents or for older adults were fully available without disruption.

Community-based and outpatient mental health services were also deeply affected, including the closure of, or restrictions on residential, home and day-care services.

Disruptions in mental health services are often a result of travel restrictions that have prevented patients from reaching clinics, especially in low-income countries, which have had trouble responding to COVID-19 through digital healthcare services like telemedicine, teletherapy or hotlines. 

While over 80% of high-income countries said they used digital healthcare to replace in-person consultations, only 50% of low-income countries have been able to do so, revealed the report.

Lower-income countries have found it harder to adopt digital health solutions during the pandemic

Countries Must Ramp Up Mental Health Surveillance And Research

Countries must ramp up mental health surveillance and research, especially as the coronavirus exacerbates existing mental, neurological and substance use issues and triggers new ones – including delirium, strokes or psychoses, said Kestel.  She added that only half of  130 surveyed countries have collected data on mental, neurological and substance use disorders – and fewer than one-tenth are researching how the COVID-19 virus attacks the brain.

People with pre-existing mental, neurological and substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 disease, according to the latest research.

In one cohort study of almost 1,700 patients with COVID-19, those with psychiatric disorders were about 1.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19, even after adjusting for differences in age, underlying conditions or hospital locations, reported researchers from Yale University’s School of Public Health less than a week ago.

Even if people with mental health disorders are safe from the coronavirus, inadequate access to services can be life-threatening. Together, suicides, alcohol and drug overdoses kill over 4 million people a year – or four times more than the coronavirus has killed thus far.

“The impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is already extremely concerning,” said Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in mid-May. “Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment.”

Image Credits: WHO/NOOR/Sebastian Liste, WHO, WHO.

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