“The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil — they all cause or could cause psychological distress,” said Devora Kestel, director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mental health department.
Not only disease and death have an effect on mental health, the report says, but also the response to the pandemic, including measures that lead to isolation, economic uncertainty, poverty and fear of the disease itself.
Particularly vulnerable to such effects are children and young people, removed from the company of friends and the certainty of school; and health care workers having to deal with a constant stream of the sick and dying for whom little or nothing can be done.
“Parents in Italy and Spain have reported that their children have had difficulties concentrating, as well as irritability, restlessness and nervousness,” the report says. “Stay-at-home measures have come with a heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse. Children with disabilities, children in crowded settings and those who live and work on the streets are particularly vulnerable.”
The crisis has created a new type of front-line worker from people who never expected to be in a dangerous position, including supermarket workers, exposed to the possibility of infection without experience, training or the necessary protective equipment.
The report calls on national authorities to take action “to reduce immense suffering among hundreds of millions of people and mitigate long-term social and economic costs to society”.
That would include reversing what the report calls a historic decline in investment in psychological services, as well as providing emergency mental health services such as tele-counselling for front-line workers.
It would also include identifying vulnerable sections of the population, such as those at risk of domestic violence, poverty and depression.
“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO. “This is a collective responsibility of governments and civil society, with the support of the whole United Nations system. A failure to take people’s emotional well-being seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”