A ‘marathon’ needed to avoid a mental health pandemic

Youth unemployment

Many young unemployed people have mental health problems. [Francisco Osorio/Flickr]

As the infection and death rates from coronavirus continue to decline across Europe, policymakers are beginning to take stock of the widespread impact of the pandemic on mental health.

A report by the World Health Organisation’s mental health department to the UN on Wednesday (13 May) warned of another looming crisis caused by the pandemic.

“The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil – they all cause or could cause psychological distress,” said the department’s director, Devora Kestel. She added that the world could expect to see an upsurge in the severity of mental illness, particularly among children, young people and healthcare workers.

“The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently,” she added.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres said: “Frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis. We must help them and stand by them.”

In Italy, the UK, and other European countries, doctors and nurses have been offered psychotherapy.

But the effects of several months of strict social confinement measures, combined with the prospect of major economic recessions and massive job losses across Europe, risk creating a surge in mental ill-health.

That message is underscored by Claudia Marinetti, director of Mental Health Europe, a pan-European network representing mental health professionals, users and service providers.

“It is important that we consider what is happening now as a marathon that we have to run. There will be long term implications for mental health provision,” Marinetti told EURACTIV.

A survey in the UK by the charity YoungMinds found that 83% of respondents agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse. Meanwhile, 26% of young people who had been accessing support said they were unable to get it because of the lockdown measures imposed to control the pandemic.

Service access has also been blocked by people being more reluctant or unable to see their GP – typically the first point of contact for people suffering mental ill-health – because of the pandemic. Countries across the EU have also reported a substantial drop in admittance to accident and emergency facilities at hospitals.

Marinetti said that “there has been a bit of silver lining” in that the lockdown has pushed mental health professionals towards trying online meetings to offer care, in the absence of other options. There are also reports of more home visits by therapists, although Marinetti underscores that “we need to ensure that human contact will not lose its importance”.

The pandemic has also affected people in institutions. There have been reports of increasing isolation and coercive measures in institutions and seclusion of patients.

In some countries, meanwhile, hospital wards for those suffering mental ill-health have been used to treat patients with coronavirus, with doctors encouraging patients who feel comfortable enough to leave the facility.

“The question is what happens to these people in a couple of months because they have not had enough support,” says Marinetti.

Meanwhile, the confinement measures have also led to less support for carers and left thousands of vulnerable women at an increased risk of domestic violence.

“We really need to make sure that, in the aftermath, there are no cuts in social services,” said Marinetti, adding that European governments need to be aware of the impact that mass unemployment is going to have on mental health.

“The time is now to make sure that the measures are put in place to avoid this. If people are not well and supported, we are not going to get out of this recession,” she told EURACTIV.

Another priority, Marinetti said, is to ensure that the pandemic does not lead to a spike in prescriptions for benzodiazepines, the family of medication commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but which can also lead to long-term dependency if not accompanied by other forms of therapy.

“I really hope that the current crisis has opened the eyes of policy-makers that we can really make a change,” Marinetti told EURACTIV. She added they would ask for “a more co-ordinated role for the European Union”, hoping that an EU strategy for mental health, which the Commission has committed to publishing before the end of 2020, would be at its core.

The strategy will not seek to increase EU competences in health care but rather look at ways to coordinate data collection and best practices across the bloc, EURACTIV understands.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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