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Mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health

In commemorating World Mental Health Day 2020, the ISC asked new intern, Caroline Sharples, to explore the issue of mental health – an issue facing close to one in seven of the world’s population, exacerbated by the crises surrounding the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Mental health disorders, according to WHO,  are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide, with approximately 1 in 4 people being affected by neurological disorders at some point in their lives. As mental health awareness has spread in recent years, a great deal of work still remains in order to create accessible resources for all and eliminate mental health stigma and discrimination, which prevents people from receiving the help they need. The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day set by the World Federation for Mental Health is “Mental Health for All.” Regardless of a pre-existing or ongoing condition, mental health applies to all people and is closely linked with good physical health as well as positive social and economic outcomes. Positive mental health is more than just the absence of a mental health condition, it is a sense of well-being, or the capacity to enjoy life and manage the challenges we face.

This year’s theme becomes even more relevant as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic inflicts loss, uncertainty, instability, and a general decline in mental wellbeing across populations all over the world. Psychologist and former President of the International Union of Psychological Science, Saths Cooper states, “Our mental health is important, as we confront the grave challenges our world faces especially during this devastating pandemic!”

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health has created a rise in global concern as emerging statistics compare pre-pandemic data to the devastating impacts that COVID-19 has on mental health. The drivers of this decline include social isolation, financial loss, reduced access to mental health services, housing insecurity, and loss of coping mechanisms. The impacts of COVID-19 may worsen pre-existing mental health conditions while also affecting people who have not previously experienced poor mental health.

Prior to the pandemic, more than 70% of persons who were in need of mental health services lacked access to care (Wainberg, M.L., Scorza, P., Shultz, J.M. et al.). As the crises surrounding the pandemic grow, the demand for mental health treatment is also increasing, yet critical services in 93% of countries surveyed by WHO have been halted or disrupted due to the pandemic.  This decrease in the availability of mental health services is concerning, as countries were already struggling to meet the mental health care needs of their populations.

The Director-General of the UN recognized this situation in a policy brief on May 13, 2020, stating, “The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently.” The policy brief outlined three critical actions for legislators:

  1. Apply a whole-of-society approach to promote, protect, and care for mental health
  2. Ensure widespread availability of emergency mental health and psychosocial support
  3. Support recovery from COVID-19 by developing mental health services for the future.

COVID-19 has created a mental health emergency just as much as it has created physical health, economic and social emergencies. In order to prevent the implicated decline in physical health and economic status that is associated with worsening emotional wellbeing, investing in public mental health should be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds throughout the process of establishing COVID-19 recovery plans.

The good news is that over the past decade, knowledge surrounding key mental health challenges has grown substantially – including emerging research on gut microbiota and their impact on the health and physiology of their host. Further, policymakers are starting to note that improving mental health increases both the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of interventions for mental health disorders in countries of varying states of economic development. 

Governments can take several key actions to improve the mental health of their populations.  These actions, according to WHO can include:

  1. Providing better information, awareness, and education about mental health
  2. Higher quality and quantities of health and social care services
  3. Social and financial protection for people with mental conditions
  4. Better legislative protection and social support

Despite the devastation associated with COVID-19, policymakers and scientific unions involved in the issues surrounding mental health are met with a unique opportunity to invest in mental health services, reduce inequalities and increase the availability of mental health services for everyone. Taking positive action towards mental health can be considered a focus of renewed investment not just in terms of human development and dignity, but also in terms of social and economic development.

In commemorating World Mental Health Day, the ISC welcomes some suggestions available to all for preventing mental health conditions and looking after your mental health during COVID-19, which are:

  • Keeping up a daily routine
  • Staying active
  • Minimizing screen time
  • Eating a nutritional diet
  • Dedicating time to yourself
  • Doing something you enjoy or are good at
  • Paying attention to how you feel
  • Talking about your feelings with loved ones
  • Caring for others

If you are in crisis and in need of mental health resources and support, crisis hotline numbers for more than 70 countries can be found here.

Photo by Jude Beck from Unsplash

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