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Anxiety and depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic

According to a scientific report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO), the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25% worldwide in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper highlights the most affected populations and reviews the impact of the pandemic on the availability of mental health services and how this changed during the pandemic.  

Concerned about the potential increase in mental disorders, 90% of countries surveyed have already addressed mental health and psychosocial support needs in their COVID-19 plans, but major gaps and concerns remain.

"The information currently available on the impact of COVID-19 on global mental health is just the tip of the iceberg," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "This is a call for all countries to pay more attention to mental health and to step up efforts to promote the mental health of their populations."

Multiple stressors

The unprecedented stress caused by social isolation as a result of the pandemic is one of the main explanations for this increase. The situation is exacerbated by the limitation of opportunities to work, seek help from family members, and participate in social life.

Loneliness, fear of infection, grief and death of self and loved ones, and financial worries were also identified as stressors leading to anxiety and depression. Among caregivers, burnout was a major factor in suicidal thoughts.

Young people and women are most affected

The paper, based on a comprehensive review of existing mental health data and the mental health impact of COVID-19, and including estimates from the most recent Global Burden of Disease study, shows that the pandemic has affected the mental health of young people, putting them at disproportionately high risk of suicidality and self-injurious behavior. The report also shows that women were more affected than men and that people with pre-existing physical health problems such as asthma, cancer, or heart disease were more likely to develop symptoms of mental illness. 

The data suggest that people with pre-existing mental health conditions do not appear to be disproportionately vulnerable to infection with the 2019 coronavirus. However, once infected, they are more likely to be hospitalized, suffer from a severe form of the disease, and die than people without mental disorders. People with more severe mental disorders, such as psychosis, and young people with mental disorders are particularly at risk.

Gaps in care

The increase in mental disorders was accompanied by severe disruptions in mental health services, leaving a significant gap in care for those who need it most. During most of the pandemic, mental, neurological, and substance use disorder services were the most severely disrupted of all essential health services reported by WHO member states. Many countries also reported severe disruptions in essential mental health services, including suicide prevention.

By the end of 2021, the situation had improved slightly, but too many people are still unable to access the care and support they need for existing or emerging mental health conditions.

Because many people do not have access to in-person care, they seek help online. There is therefore an urgent need for reliable, effective, and easily accessible digital tools. However, developing and implementing digital interventions remains a major challenge in resource-poor countries and contexts.

WHO and national action

From the early days of the pandemic, WHO and its partners worked to develop and disseminate tools in different languages and formats to help different groups cope with and respond to the mental health consequences of COVID-19. For example, WHO developed a book for children aged 6-11 years, "My Hero Is You", which is now available in 142 languages and 61 multimedia adaptations, and a toolkit to support older people, which is available in 16 languages.

At the same time, the Agency worked with its partners, including other UN agencies, international NGOs, and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, to lead a multi-agency response to COVID-19 in the area of mental health and psychosocial support. During the pandemic, WHO also worked to promote the integration of mental health and psychosocial support into all aspects of the global response. 

WHO Member States have recognized the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and are taking steps to address it. The latest WHO survey on the continuum of essential health services shows that 90% of countries are working to provide psychosocial support and mental health services to both COVID-19 patients and those involved in the pandemic response. In addition, at last year's World Health Assembly, countries emphasized the need to improve and strengthen mental health and psychosocial support as part of improving preparedness, response, and resilience to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies. An update to the Global Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030 was adopted, which includes an indicator for mental health preparedness and psychosocial support in public health emergencies.  

Increased investment

However, this commitment to mental health must be matched by an overall increase in investment. Unfortunately, the chronic lack of resources for mental health worldwide is a situation that continues to this day. The most recent WHO Mental Health Atlas shows that by 2020, governments around the world will spend on average just over 2% of their health budget on mental health, and many low-income countries reported not having one mental health worker per 100,000 people.

Devora Kestel, Director of WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, sums up the situation as follows: "While the pandemic has increased interest and concern for mental health, it has also highlighted historic underinvestment in mental health services. Countries must act urgently to ensure that mental health support is available to all."


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