A new survey has found that countries in the Americas, including those in the Caribbean, are falling short in implementing mental health services amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The survey was conducted by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and World Health Organization (WHO).
PAHO Assistant Director, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, said that these services are needed “at a time when mental health support is paramount.
“Data from 29 countries show that while 27 of them have integrated mental health into their COVID-19 plans, only two are adequately funded,” Barbosa said, noting that health care workers have been particularly affected by COVID-19, and that they have been “making extraordinary personal sacrifices and difficult decisions on the frontlines of the pandemic for months”.
Barbosa said new data from six countries show worrying signs.
“One in five health workers is experiencing symptoms of depression. In Chile, nearly one in ten has suicidal thoughts.
“Over 75 percent of health workers are concerned about getting COVID-19 and virtually all are worried about infecting their loved ones,” he added, citing the COVID-19 HEROES cohort study aimed at examining the mental, behavioural and social health problems experienced by health care workers.
The study, a joint effort between the University of Chile and Columbia University, includes Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela.
Barbosa said mental health, as well as physical health, must remain a key consideration, “as we move towards the end of the first year of this global pandemic.
“COVID-19 has disrupted our daily routines, forced millions into months-long isolation, devastated our economies and caused an unimaginable loss of life. We have all been shaken. Surveys from several countries show that the pandemic has increased the level of stress for many in our region, and some of us are battling anxiety and depression.”
The PAHO assistant director said that countries have also failed to sufficiently staff their mental health services, “so care may be more out of reach than ever before”.
He said that psychotherapy, substance abuse support and access to medication have been significantly disrupted and remain unavailable to many who urgently need them, adding that even efforts to expand access through telemedicine have still not reached the majority of those who need it.
“Individuals living with mental health and substance abuse disorders need reliable care and support, especially now. Community-based mental health services, that are integrated into primary health care, are a pillar of mental health services and vital to ensuring that no one gets left behind,” he said, adding support should be provided where it is needed the most: close to the community.
Barbosa said that since the start of the pandemic, more than 20 million people have been infected with COVID-19 in the Americas, and nearly 650,000 have died.
“We are home to more than one in four cases and a third of the world’s coronavirus deaths,” he said, disclosing that, in the last seven days, nearly one million new infections were reported in the Americas, “making it one of the worst weeks on record for COVID-19 infections in our region.”
While the cumulative number of new infections is high and continues to increase, Barbosa said “it is important to remember that the perseverance shown by many countries in implementing public health measures has been effective in flattening the curve and protecting health services.
“This underscores why it is so important that national and local authorities implement all necessary public health measures, and why all of us must continue to take individual precautions because they work,” he said.
“But it is vital that we maintain this collective effort to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our health care systems until the end of the pandemic,” Barbosa added.