ADDIS ABABA – In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, says a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday.
Concerns about potential increases in mental health conditions had already prompted 90% of countries surveyed to include mental health and psychosocial support in their COVID-19 response plans.
However, the brief indicates major gaps and concerns remain.
One major explanation for the increase is the unprecedented stress caused by the social isolation resulting from the pandemic.
Linked to this were constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities, says the brief.
Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement and financial worries have also all been cited as stressors leading to anxiety and depression.
Among health workers, the scientific brief says “exhaustion has been a major trigger for suicidal thinking.”
It also says that women have been more severely impacted than men and that people with pre-existing physical health conditions.
Data suggests that people with pre-existing mental disorders do not appear to be disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
Yet, it says when these people do become infected, they are more likely to suffer hospitalization, severe illness and death compared with people without mental disorders.
Gaps in care
Services for mental, neurological and substance use conditions were the most disrupted among all essential health services during the pandemic, says the UN Agency.
Experts say the situation underscores a chronic global shortage of mental health resources that continues today.
“While the pandemic has generated interest in and concern for mental health, it has also revealed historical under-investment in mental health services,” said Dévora Kestel, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO.
“Countries must act urgently to ensure that mental health support is available to all,” he added.
Governments worldwide spent on average just over 2% of their health budgets on mental health as per the WHO’s 2020 Mental Health Atlas.