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The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Worsening the Global Mental Health Crisis

“Decades of neglect and underinvestment in addressing mental health needs have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic," the UN has warned.
May 15, 2020, 7:56am
mental health crisis coronavirus

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

The coronavirus pandemic is attacking us in more ways than one—the virus is not only preying on our physical health but is also causing psychological distress. In a new policy brief on May 13 and right in the middle of the ongoing Mental Health Awareness Month, the United Nations warned of the pandemic worsening mental health across the globe, saying, “Decades of neglect and underinvestment in addressing mental health needs have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Mental health is at the core of our humanity. It enables us to lead rich and fulfilling lives and to participate in our communities,” said the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres in a video message, warning of the detrimental effect of the pandemic on our psychological well-being. “The COVID-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress.”

This mental illness crisis is looming all over us as millions of people around the globe get surrounded by death, disease, and isolation. The illness is manifesting itself in the worst forms—even driving people to the edge of death by suicide due to loneliness. Domestic violence is on the rise as we all stay indoors, healthcare workers have talked about an increased need for mental health support, and people are feeling the distress born out of days of staying away from family and being worried about losing themselves or their loved ones to the virus. “Those most at risk are frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents, and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis,” added Guterres.

Moreover, people are also being forced into poverty from the economic turmoil the pandemic—and the subsequent lockdown—has caused. As many as 27 million youths in India alone have lost their jobs already in the pandemic lockdown, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Additionally, over 120 million people across the country are now unemployed, and many who still have their job have received either reduced or no salaries. This, compounded with the end of the pandemic seeming so far away—or possibly even never, according to WHO—has led to a rise in anxiety and hopelessness about the future.

As the number of people in need of mental health services continue to rise, the problem is amplified by the interruption of these services due to lockdowns. In addition to mental health facilities in hospitals being closed, community services and self-help groups have also been unable to meet for several months.

The UN brief also highlights a warning from The Lancet Commission On Global Mental Health And Sustainable Development that “many people who previously coped well, are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic”. Guterres adds, “Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety, and depression will continue to affect people and communities. Policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions, and protect their human rights and dignity. Lockdowns and quarantines must not discriminate against those with poor mental health.”

But maybe what we can do at such a time is look at this as a lesson to build a credible and cohesive mental health network for the future. “The scaling-up and reorganization of mental health services that are now needed on a global scale is an opportunity to build a mental health system that is fit for the future,” said Dévora Kestel, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO.

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