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Preparing for the Mental Health Epidemic

The coronavirus pandemic has burdened the healthcare infrastructures of a number of countries and led to the death of millions of people worldwide. Social distancing norms and lockdowns imposed by governments have resulted in economic strains on people. The economic and physical toll of the pandemic has been oft-discussed, but there is a growing consensus that the pandemic is also affecting the mental health of people. Often due to stigmatization, mental health is an overlooked aspect in the healthcare sector, but the pandemic may force a change in this perspective. The drastic and prolonged disruption in daily routines, economic hardships, anxiety caused by the uncertainty that surrounds the virus and in several countries, strict lockdowns, have all affected the mental wellbeing of people across the globe.

 

Disproportionate Impact on Mental Health

The prolonged effects of lockdowns and economic uncertainty have led to an increase in individuals experiencing stress. Already, it has been observed that the pandemic has impacted working individuals hard, particularly those that are less privileged. Further, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the existing wage and racial inequalities, in a world that was already facing a rise in authoritarianism, political divides and climate crisis.

 

Mental healthcare providers have reported an increase in the number of patients reaching out or seeking services during the pandemic. Even primary healthcare providers such as nurses and doctors, have reported high stress levels, and many have decided to seek mental healthcare. In America, children have been found to develop adverse mental health symptoms during the pandemic, given the disruption in their routines and increased screen times. Experts have also cautioned against the further deterioration of people who were already facing mental health issues and illnesses prior to the pandemic. The concerns are not only due to a rising number of people facing deteriorating mental health, but more importantly, the inadequate infrastructure to handle a possible mental health ‘epidemic’

 

Ill-Equipped Mental Health Infrastructure

At the outset, mental healthcare is largely inaccessible for a majority of the world’s population, given that it is not a routine component in insurance policies. There is limited access and affordability of services and medications, particularly in low and middle-income countries. In certain countries, such as the United States and India, there simply are not enough mental health professionals to deal with the impending crisis. Furthermore, a majority of the governments have not placed the required emphasis on mental health in their budgets, policies and legislations, leaving the sector unregulated and unmonitored. These obstacles make it difficult for individuals to seek mental healthcare in practical terms, in addition to the surrounding societal stigma. These obstacles may contribute to a possible mental health ‘epidemic’ and may cripple the weak infrastructures in place.

Telehealth – Boon or Bane for the Mental Health Crisis?

The pandemic has however, resulted in a positive outcome: the rise of online therapy sessions and increased awareness about mental health. Digital mental healthcare services may have improved accessibility, giving people the opportunity to seek help from the comfort of their homes. The pandemic has boosted an emerging sector, with companies producing ‘Wellness’ apps that provide mental health resources. However, this cannot be the sole solution if there is indeed a mental health crisis approaching – initiatives must be taken by governments to incorporate robust laws and policies that effectively address mental health and aim to remove the stigma associated with seeking help. Moreover, considering the novelty of telehealth, States have yet to introduce comprehensive regulations to prevent exploitation and misuse. The ramifications of this could be drastic in the mental health sector, given the sensitive and confidential nature of online mental health services.

Road Ahead

Public healthcare infrastructure as well as insurance policies must recognize and include mental health as a vital component of the overall well being of a person. Along with physical working conditions, labour legislations must also start identifying rights associated with mental health and in particular, address the rights of people facing mental illnesses and/or disorders. A greater understanding must be achieved of the pandemic’s true impact on mental health, in order to identify the best mitigation measures. In the meantime, telehealth services concerning online therapy sessions or mental health resources must be reviewed by authorities to ensure that they conform to best medical practices and are carried out within ethical confines. The pandemic may be approaching its end with the promise of vaccination soon, however, if appropriate steps are not taken, the mental health crisis may serve as a replacement for the pandemic and further debilitate the world.