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Public Health

Dr Mike Ryan: 'We're underestimating the tsunami of mental health issues emerging'

Dr Ryan also spoke of how inequality has led to poorer outcomes for marginalised groups during the pandemic.

THE WAVE OF mental health issues emerging on a global level is being underestimated, Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergency Programme, said today.

He a long-term commitment to dealing with the underlying factors that drive mental health problems is required.

“We, collectively I mean at a global level, are under estimating the tsunami of mental health issues that are emerging for so many different reasons,” he said.

“We have millions of children living in conflict situations. We have so many people who are migrants around the world who live in desperately uncertain circumstances all the time. They don’t know where they’re going to be tomorrow, if they’re going to be deported, if they’re going to be accepted.

There are so many different groups living in overcrowded slums around the world who live on $1 a day and they have to go to a street corner every morning and see if they can earn enough money by getting some work to feed their family that day – not next week but that day. That amount of stress, that is a huge burden for any human being to carry in those different circumstances.

Ryan said the pandemic has “amplified what was already an issue”, describing mental health issues as “a pandemic in its own right”. He said he would like to see Ireland and the rest of the world have “a much more fundamental investment” in mental health.

But it also needs to move down to community level. Mental health isn’t about putting people in institutions, mental health is about preserving the mental health we have, giving people the skills to manage their own mental health and cope better with the situation they’re in, but it’s also about changing the situation people are. 

“There’s no point in giving people coping skills, when in fact they’re coping with unacceptable situations. So we have to change both; we have to change the situations that people find themselves in and the stresses that they’re under constantly and then we have to also give people more capacity to cope.”

Ryan was speaking at an event this morning hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement.

The suicide rate among the Traveller community is six times the rate among the general population and it accounts for 11% of Traveller deaths.

He described these statistics as “shocking” and “a terrible burden for a community to bear because, in that situation, there just must be constant fear for everyone around you, because everyone is suffering”.

Dr Ryan said for individuals who are at risk of self harm there must be better urgent services to save lives.

He also spoke of how systematic racism and biases against ethnic groups such as Travellers result in unfair access to healthcare.

“Ultimately there is a health consequence to racism; a direct psychological consequence, a denial of service consequence, a marginalisation consequence, a poverty consequence an education consequence and all of those leads to ill health,” he said.

Dr Ryan said ethnicity is inherently associated with poor health outcomes, but the genetic reasons are overstated. 

“There are some reasons why different ethnic groups may experience different diseases in different ways, there are genetic reasons underlying, but the vast majority of the reason why people in certain ethnic groups have poor health outcomes, is to do with the social inequalities,” he said.

“It’s to do with exclusion and it is not to do with their genetics and it’s not to do with their underlying humanity, it is to do with the social circumstances in which they live. It has to do with the access to healthcare they have, it  is to do with their education, their wealth, and to do with the degree to which the society within which they live accepts them as equal to others.”

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