In the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a report that reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a 25 per cent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
The scientific brief released by WHO also highlights who has been most affected and summarises the effect of the pandemic on the availability of mental health services and how this has changed during the pandemic.
“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
WHO says a major reason for the increase is the unprecedented stress caused by social isolation as people worked from home and were unable to seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities.
Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement and financial worries have also all been cited as stressors leading to anxiety and depression. Among health workers, exhaustion has been a major trigger for suicidal thinking.
According to WHO, the brief, which is informed by a comprehensive review of existing evidence about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and mental health services and includes estimates from the latest Global Burden of Disease study, shows that the pandemic has affected the mental health of young people and that they are disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviours.
It also indicates that women have been more severely impacted than men and that people with pre-existing physical health conditions, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease, were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.
WHO reports that data suggests that people with pre-existing mental disorders do not appear to be disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
Yet, when these people do become infected, they are more likely to suffer hospitalisation, severe illness and death compared with people without mental disorders. People with more severe mental disorders, such as psychoses, and young people with mental disorders, are particularly at risk.
In 2020, WHO released Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide, a stress management guide for coping with adversity. The guide aims to equip people with practical skills to help cope with stress.