UN Policy Brief: COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health

Although the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken. Good mental health is critical to the functioning of society at the best of times. It must be front and centre of every country’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently.

Psychological distress in populations is widespread. Many people are distressed due to the immediate health impacts of the virus and the consequences of physical isolation. Many are afraid of infection, dying, and losing family members. Individuals have been physically distanced from loved ones and peers. Millions of people are facing economic turmoil having lost or being at risk of losing their income and livelihoods. Frequent misinformation and rumours about the virus and deep uncertainty about the future are common sources of distress. A long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems is likely.

Moreover, specific populations groups are showing high degrees of COVID-19-related psychological distress. Frontline healthcare workers and first responders have been exposed to numerous stressors and ensuring the mental health of healthcare workers is a critical factor in sustaining COVID-19 preparedness, response and recovery. In every community, there are numerous older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions who are terrified and lonely. Emotional difficulties among children and adolescents are exacerbated by family stress, social isolation, with some facing increased abuse, disrupted education and uncertainty about their futures, occurring at critical points in their emotional development. Women are bearing a large brunt of the stress in the home as well as disproportionate impacts more generally. And people caught in fragile humanitarian and conflict settings risk having their mental health needs overlooked entirely.

During the past few months, there have been efforts initiated to support people in distress and to ensure care for people with mental health conditions. Innovative ways of providing mental health services have been implemented, and initiatives to strengthen psychosocial support have sprung up.

Yet, because of the size of the problem, the vast majority of mental health needs remain unaddressed. The response is hampered by the lack of investment in mental health promotion, prevention and care before the pandemic. This historic underinvestment in mental health needs to be redressed without delay to reduce immense suffering among hundreds of millions of people and mitigate long-term social and economic costs to society