PAHO launches campaign to raise awareness of COVID-19 mental health toll on frontline health workers

8 Oct 2021
Group of health workers talk and share stories

The campaign invites healthcare workers to share testimonies about managing pandemic-induced stress, anxiety, and depression

Washington, D.C. October 8, 2021 (PAHO) On the eve of World Mental Health Day, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is launching a social media campaign to raise awareness of the sustained burden the COVID-19 pandemic poses on the mental health of frontline health workers, inviting them to share their stories and strategies to better manage and cope with this added challenge.

The campaign Mental Health Now – Tell Your Story, will collect written and video stories from healthcare workers in the Americas through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which will be compiled and disseminated through PAHO’s website and social media channels until the end of the year. The story selection will be based on specific criteria, aiming to portray the breadth of the effects of the pandemic and display the diversity of the Americas.

“Health workers have sacrificed so much in order to care for people during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this has even affected their mental health in many cases. The campaign will amplify health workers’ voices so there is more understanding of the mental health challenges they have been facing. It will promote listening and dialogue, urging health service managers to take action to help their workers," said Renato Oliveira e Souza, PAHO’s Mental Health and Substance Use Unit Chief.

Preliminary data from the COVID-19 HEalth caRe wOrkErS (HEROES) study, a collaboration between the University of Chile, Columbia University in the United States, and PAHO, indicate that between 5% and 15% of respondents in several countries in the Americas reported suicidal thoughts in the two weeks prior to being consulted for the survey. Between 15% and 22% reported symptoms compatible with depression.

The study focuses on the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of healthcare workers in 11 countries in the Americas: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The study will be available in November.

The pandemic has affected the mental health of not only healthcare workers but also many other populations in the Americas, as they faced personal bereavement, news about illness and death, job losses, economic and social crises, domestic violence, school closures and persistent widespread misinformation.  At the same time, services to help people cope with such stressors have been disrupted by COVID-19.

Dr. Oliveira referenced the 2021 PAHO/WHO pulse survey on the continuity of essential services, which shows that mental health  services have suffered the greatest degree of disruption, with 60% of countries in the Americas reporting disruptions this year.  “This situation has been extremely challenging,” Dr. Oliveira said. “The increased mental health needs are exacerbated by interruptions in the provision of mental health services.”  

Even before the pandemic, mental health services were not accessible to many in need. The treatment gap – the percentage of people who require care but do not receive it – for specific mental health and substance use problems reached almost 80% in some places in the Americas. Persons who are poor, unemployed, less educated, or are members of groups who often face racial and social discrimination, have less access to mental health services.

World Mental Health Day, celebrated annually on October 10, is organized by the World Federation for Mental Health and endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The event reflects a global commitment to raise awareness of mental health issues and mobilize support for mental health.