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Covid-19: UN urges actions on mental health

The United Nations is urging governments, civil society and health authorities to urgently address mental health needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

By Robin Gomes

In a video message on Wednesday to launch a policy brief entitled “COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that the pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress. 

Surge in Covid-19 stress

The Covid-19 virus, he noted, is “attacking not only our physical health; it is also increasing our psychological suffering”. He pointed to examples such as “grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restriction, difficult family dynamics and uncertainty and fear for the future”.  

Devora Kestel, director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) mental health department echoed the UN chief’s message saying that isolation, fear, uncertainty and economic turmoil cause or could cause psychological distress.

Presenting the UN policy brief at a press briefing on Thursday in Geneva, Kestel noted that an upsurge in the number and severity of mental illnesses is likely, and governments should put the issue "front and centre" their responses.

Guterres said that he and his family who have been “close to doctors and psychiatrists treating these conditions”, had become “acutely aware of the suffering they cause”.  

“This suffering is often exacerbated by stigma and discrimination,” Guterres said, adding this is “absolutely unacceptable”.  

Depression, anxiety, suicide

Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, the UN chief said, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world. Those most at risk are frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis.

Listen to Antonio Guterres

“We must help them and stand by them,” he stressed, adding, “mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to COVID-19, and must be expanded and fully funded”.

In Canada, 47% of healthcare workers reported a need for psychological support. In Pakistan, large numbers of healthcare workers have reported moderate (42%) to severe (26%) psychological distress. In China, healthcare workers reported high rates of depression (50%), anxiety (45%), and insomnia (34%).

According to the policy brief, depression and anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic cost the global economy more than US$ 1 trillion per year.

Depression affects 264 million people in the world.  Around half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, with suicide the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15 to 29.

Over 800,000 people die each year by suicide, or one death every 40 seconds, according to WHO figures.

A study in Canada showed 20% of the population aged 15-49 have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic.

Approximately 8 out of 10 reported deaths in the USA and Germany occurred in people aged 65 years or older or 70 years and older respectively.

A study in India on the level of stress in the population during Covid-19 showed 66% of women reported being stressed as compared to 34% of men. 

Women and children have also been experiencing increased domestic violence and abuse.

Urgent action needed

Both Guterres and Kestel underscored the priority of ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of entire societies.   

The UN chief urged “governments, civil society, health authorities and others to come together urgently to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic”.

“Even when the pandemic is brought under control,” he observed, “grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities.”   

The UN Secretary-General especially urged governments to “announce ambitious commitments on mental health at the upcoming World Health Assembly scheduled for May 18-19.


14 May 2020, 15:47