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Covid-19 pandemic causing major disruptions to critical mental health services, WHO finds

The HSE’s winter plan has been criticised for not allocating enough funding towards mental health.

A statue of Luke Kelly looks down towards an empty Kings Street, Dublin.
A statue of Luke Kelly looks down towards an empty Kings Street, Dublin.
Image: Rollingnews

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has significantly impacted mental health services around the globe, according to a survey carried out by the World Health Organisation, renewing calls for increased funding in the sector. 

The organisation urged world leaders to invest in “life-saving mental health programmes” as 93% of surveyed countries report a decline in access and an increase in demand for mental health services

The survey – conducted from June to August among 130 countries – aimed to evaluate how the provision of mental, neurological and substance use services has changed due to the pandemic and how countries are adapting to overcome these challenges.

The survey found the majority of countries had suffered widespread disruptions:

  • Over 60% reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents (72%), older adults (70%), and women requiring antenatal or postnatal services (61%).
  • 67% saw disruptions to counselling and psychotherapy; 65% to critical harm reduction services; and 45% to opioid agonist maintenance treatment for opioid dependence.
  • 30% reported disruptions to access to medications for mental, neurological and substance use disorders.
  • Nearly three-quarters reported at least partial disruptions to school and workplace mental health services (78% and 75% respectively).

The survey also found significant disparities in the uptake of online services to in-person services despite 70% of countries introducing them. 

The organisation has recommended that countries allocate resources to mental health as an integral component of their response and recovery plans. 

Although 89% of countries reported in the survey that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national Covid-19 response plans, only 17% of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities.

“World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life-saving mental health programmes ̶ during the pandemic and beyond,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation said this morning. 

“Covid-19 has interrupted essential mental health services around the world just when they’re needed most.”

Prior to the pandemic, WHO found that countries were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.

‘Repercussions are going to be significant’ 

Speaking at the Green Party’s online party convention this weekend, party spokesperson for health Neasa Hourigan criticised the HSE’s winter plan for not allocating enough funding towards mental health.

Hourigan said that Covid-19 has put people under “immense pressure” and called for the budget to show a “renewed commitment to mental health and mental health funding”.

Likewise, the Mental Health Reform, the national coalition on mental health, expressed serious concern about the absence of mental health in the Winter Plan for 2020.

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“Community mental health services and supports are critically under-resourced yet they are imperative in preventing people being admitted to hospital for mental health treatment. These have not been funded in the Winter Plan,” CEO of Mental Health Reform, Fiona Coyle, said at the time.

“Over the tough winter months ahead, when access to mental health service can become even more difficult for people, we believe the lack of additional resources for services in this Winter Plan will have a negative impact both on individuals and acute services.”

Mental health charity Aware says it has experienced a dramatic increase in demand for its services over the past seven months, and echoed the calls for greater investment. 

“We are already seeing the consequences of Covid-19 on the nation’s mental health. Over the past seven months, we have seen an increase of over 60% in calls to our Support Line, highlighting the impact of the pandemic and related socioeconomic factors on public wellbeing,” Dominic Layden, Chief Executive at Aware said. 

“Unless we start to prioritise mental health and invest accordingly, the repercussions are going to be significant – both for our society and our economy.”

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate the measures being taken to tackle a pandemic-induced mental health crisis. You can help fund them here.

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Adam Daly

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