The coronavirus pandemic "has the seeds of a major mental health crisis," the United Nations (UN) warned in a policy briefing this week, calling for substantial investment in support services.
Devora Kestel, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization (WHO — a UN agency), said the isolation, fear, uncertainty and economic turmoil surrounding the pandemic could all cause "psychological distress."
She added that "the mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently."
Kestel was presenting a UN report, issued Thursday, which highlighted that certain people, including frontline healthcare workers, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, women and children were showing "high degrees of Covid-19-related psychological distress."
The coronavirus has infected over 4.3 million people worldwide and killed nearly 300,000, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The UN said that while innovative ways of providing mental health support had been implemented in the past few months, it didn't go far enough to deal with the needs of the vast majority because of the historical underinvestment in this area before the pandemic.
It pointed out that depression and anxiety cost the global economy more than $1 trillion a year before the coronavirus pandemic and that globally, there is fewer than one mental health professional for every 10,000 people. This is despite the fact that depression affects 264 million people around the world.
Yet, the UN said countries spend just 2% of their healthcare budget on mental health on average.
As such, Kestel recommended that countries develop and fund national plans that shift mental health care away from institutions to community services. In addition, they should ensure coverage for mental health conditions in health insurance packages and build the human resource capacity to deliver quality mental health and social care in communities.
The UN report also cited research from 2018 by the Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development, which showed that mental health problems exist on a continuum from mild to severe. The UN said that the Covid-19 crisis influenced where people were situated on the continuum, and "many people who previously coped well, are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic."
Meanwhile, those who already had a mental health condition may experience a "worsening of their condition and reduced functioning."
The report also referred to a study conducted in Ethiopia in April, which estimated that 33% of people were showing symptoms of depression, thought to be three-times higher than before the crisis.
The UN also said that to cope with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, people may resort to alcohol, drugs, smoking or spending more time on potentially addictive activities like online gaming. It mentioned another study that found a fifth of Canadians aged 15-49 had been drinking more during the pandemic.
The UN urged countries to include mental health in their Covid-19 response, among other measures.