PAHO highlights under-recognized mental health crisis in the Americas due to COVID-19

Mental health support

New publication shows devastating impact of the pandemic on mental health in the Region; calls for services to be strengthened and prioritized in pandemic response and recovery plans.

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 25, 2021 (PAHO) – A new Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) publication highlights the devastating toll of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of populations in the Americas, as well as the impact of service disruptions throughout the Region.  

Strengthening mental health responses to COVID-19 in the Americas: A health policy analysis and recommendations,” published recently in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, reviews studies and data from countries in the Region in an effort to better understand the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of the population.

The data reviewed show that more than four in ten Brazilians have been struggling with anxiety, depression symptoms increased five-fold in Peru, and the proportion of Canadians reporting high levels of anxiety quadrupled as a result of the pandemic. 

“The message is clear: we have been operating in crisis mode since the onset of the pandemic,” said Dr. Anselm Hennis, Director of Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health at PAHO. “In addition to navigating the fear of getting sick and the trauma of losing loved ones to the novel coronavirus, people across the Americas have suffered from unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, and the adverse impact on mental health has been pervasive.”

The paper also indicates a stark jump in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic, citing national studies based on helpline records, police reports and data from service providers, compounding the region’s already high rates of violence, which are triple the global average. 

The mental health toll on people who experienced COVID-19 is also reviewed in the paper. “Existing evidence suggests that one third of people who suffered from COVID-19 have been diagnosed with a neurological or mental disorder,” said the PAHO paper’s lead author Amy Tausch. “We expect that the rising mental health burden may yet be one of the most significant long-term effects of COVID-19.”

At a time when care and treatment are most needed, the publication notes continuous disruptions in essential services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders in more than half of the countries in the region.

“Lack of access to counselling services, reduced availability of in-person care and school closures have limited the ways in which people can receive mental health support, leaving many isolated, vulnerable and at greater risk,” said Dr. Renato Oliveira, Chief of PAHO’s Mental Health and Substance Use Unit. 

It also documents COVID-19’s mental health impact on vulnerable populations such as younger people, women, people with pre-existing mental health conditions, as well as health and frontline workers and people of lower socioeconomic status, and notes that these have been more severely impacted by service disruptions.

The authors call for immediate action to strengthen mental health systems and services in the region, with a particular focus on integrating psychosocial support across sectors and settings such as primary health care, education, social services and community support systems. To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the authors stress that mental health must be incorporated into emergency preparedness, response and recovery plans.

Prior to the pandemic, it had been estimated that mental disorders will cost the global economy US$16 trillion by 2030 if not addressed. Additional investments are urgently needed, and as countries scale up investments in mental health services, the authors urge that groups in vulnerable situations must be given greater priority.

“Mental health has long been a neglected area of public health in the Americas. Governments must use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reinforce their mental health services and make the necessary investments required to build back better and fairer,” Dr. Renato Oliveira said.