COVID-19 presents an opportunity to strengthen mental health in the Americas

Washington, D.C. 28 September 2022 (PAHO/WHO) – The burden of mental health conditions has increased in the Americas due to COVID-19, and this situation has been exacerbated by social determinants of health such as poverty, high level health officials concluded during a side event at the 30th Pan American Sanitary Conference.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted the mental health and wellbeing of everyone, everywhere,” the PAHO Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne said at the opening of the event yesterday, Leveraging Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic to Address the Region’s Mental Health Challenges for the Future.

“We have seen rates of stress, depression and anxiety soar in our Region, and persons living in conditions of vulnerability, who have traditionally experienced a higher burden of mental health conditions and unequal access to care, were among those most affected,” Dr. Etienne added, highlighting that young people have also been disproportionately impacted. 

A report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic alone.

But in the Americas, COVID-19 exacerbated an already critical issue. The region faces increasing suicide rates, with some countries experiencing the highest suicide rates in the world. 

Mental health services have been chronically underfinanced in the region, with resources directed only to mental institutions rather than to first level of care within the community.  There is frequently also a lack of qualified health professionals, and stigma and discrimination are common barriers to care, in addition to policies that fail to promote and protect the human rights of persons with mental health problems. 

The event examined these multiple factors contributing to poor mental health with the aim of prioritizing mental health as a pillar to advance health – and noting that there is no health without mental health – as the Americas recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“PAHO Member States found innovative approaches to respond to mental health demands during the COVID- 19 pandemic, including the use of telehealth,” the PAHO Director said. “But much more is needed to ensure a true transformation of mental health through political actions at the highest level, strengthened multisectoral partnerships, investments in infrastructure, human resources and services.”

During the 30th Pan American Sanitary Conference, Member States also discussed and approved a Policy for Improving Mental health, which aims to help countries strengthen and implement policies to improve mental health in the region.

In May 2022, PAHO also established a High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 to support Member States in improving and strengthening mental health across the Americas.

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