Will Mental Health be the Next Global Pandemic?

As the pandemic continues, an even greater demand will have to be placed on national and international mental health programmes that have suffered from years of chronic under funding.

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Like COVID-19, mental health issues do not discriminate and affect people of all ages and all countries gravely. Governments around the world—Canada, the UK, the US and Australia—have recognised that people’s mental health has been severely impacted by the pandemic .They have considered suicide prevention and mental well-being a top priority. Australia has also announced more than half a billion (AUD) dollars to deal with the mental health fallout brought by COVID, including an AUD$ 48.1 million National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. The US has also announced US $425 million for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) programmes. The funding will be dedicated towards crisis response, mental health support, suicide prevention, monitoring, research and community health centres.

However, India fails to address and accept the issue with the government stating that there has been no study conducted to evaluate the mental health effects of COVID. This is despite WHO reports, which clearly state that, every single year India contributes to around 2.2 lakh suicides. India has become the capital of suicides in Southeast Asia. Teen suicides are on a rise each year and it is a real menace in our society. Depression is one of the leading causes of deaths by suicide. On an average, every 40 seconds one individual dies by suicide somewhere around the world.

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The pandemic carries with it an emotional upheaval for many individuals who had previously perceived the world to be safe and predictable, resulting in serious negative impacts on their mental health. Unfortunately, people who have experienced mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression in the past have found that such feelings are being magnified by the pandemic. Mental health issues are further compounded by those who do contract COVID-19. As many as one in three  people who have had COVID describe lingering neurological and cognitive symptoms such as difficulty thinking, fumbling with words, depression, anxiety or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is a growing consensus that the disease has long-lasting effects on the brain. Outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health differ among population groups. In particular, the emotional response brought on by the pandemic and its management might be more substantially prevalent among vulnerable groups, such as the people who are facing financial instability and with small social networks.

As a result of a global economic recession and restricted social connectivity, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented stress to these individuals.

Further, measures such as nationwide travel restrictions and quarantine, and changes in the way healthcare services are being provided, could interrupt access to and provision of psychiatric care. As a result, the risk of relapses or worsening of existing mental health conditions rises during the pandemic.

A Constantly Deteriorating Situation

A survey was conducted from June to August 2020 among 130 countries across WHO’s six regions evaluating how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to COVID-19, the types of services that have been disrupted, and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges. It brought out some important findings. There are countries reported to have widespread disruption of many kinds of critical mental health services: Over 60 per cent reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72 per cent), older adults (70 per cent), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61 per cent); 67 per cent saw disruptions to counseling and psychotherapy; 65 per cent to critical harm reduction services; and 45 per cent to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for opioid dependence; more than a third (35 per cent) reported disruptions to emergency interventions, including those for people experiencing prolonged seizures; severe substance use withdrawal syndromes; and delirium, often a sign of a serious underlying medical condition; 30 per cent  reported disruptions to access for medications for mental, neurological and substance use disorders; and around three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services (78 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively).

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How to Deal with the Challenge?

The abysmally ignorant attitude of various government bodies toward securing mental well-being of the people leaves countless people in a vulnerable state. This situation calls for many self-help strategies.

Keeping a regular routine: Maintaining a regular schedule is important to mental health. In addition to sticking to a regular bedtime routine, keeping consistent times for meals, bathing and getting dressed, work or study schedules, and exercise and setting aside time for activities one enjoys also helps.

Limiting exposure to news media: Constant news about COVID-19 from all types of media can heighten one’s fears about the disease. Also limit reading, hearing or watching other news, but keep up to date on national and local recommendations will stop the spreading of false messages.

Staying busy: A distraction gets a person away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. Enjoying hobbies that can be done at home, identifying a new project or doing something positive to manage anxiety is a healthy coping strategy.

Focusing on positive thoughts: Choosing to focus on the positive things in life, instead of dwelling on negative thoughts and maintaining a sense of hope, work to accept changes as they occur while trying to keep problems in perspective is of utmost relevance in the present times.

Setting priorities: Setting reasonable goals each day and outline and givingoneself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small and also recognizing that some days will be better than others is essential in order to have a healthy mind set.

Despite the concrete data and the WHO guidance to countries on how to maintain essential services—including mental health services—during COVID-19, countries have failed to take a serious note of the challenge.

WHO had recommended countries to allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans, while simultaneously monitoring changes and disruptions in services so that they can address them as required, out of the 89 per cent of countries reported in the survey which claimed that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17 per cent of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities. This all highlights the need for more money for mental health. As the pandemic continues, an even greater demand will have to be placed on national and international mental health programmes that have suffered from years of chronic underfunding.