The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization. The pandemic, the global shutdown, isolation, fear, rising death toll, grief, bereavement, and the increasing feeling of uncertainty had a tight grip around the world and led to a mental health crisis worldwide. Not surprisingly, a large number of countries had included mental and psychological support in their COVID-19 response plans.

Disruption in mental health services

More than 60 percent of countries reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable populations such as children, adolescents, older adults, and women needing postnatal or antenatal services.  This shortage or disruption was especially acute during the early phases of the pandemic when staff and infrastructure were redeployed for pandemic relief. Social distancing advisory also presented a challenge in terms of access. While mental health service providers were already overstretched before 2020, the rise in the number of cases post-pandemic stretched the resources even further.

Mental health challenges are estimated to cost the world economy US$6 trillion by 2030. Consequently, every dollar invested in evidence-based care for anxiety and depression returns US$5 in improved health and productivity.

Depression and anxiety

According to a study by the Lancet on the impact of the pandemic on global health, there has been a rise in major depressive disorders by 28 percent and anxiety disorders by 26 percent.  The fear of infection, death, loss of income, grief, social isolation and separation led to an exacerbation of depression and anxiety issues. Individuals with pre-existing mental health challenges and substance-use disorders experienced the impact more acutely.

In fact, the World Happiness Report 2021 suggests that mental health is one of the most significant casualties of the pandemic and global shutdowns. Vulnerable populations such as women, the young and the poor have been worst hit, further widening the gap in mental health access.

Phobia, stress and insomnia

Surveys show a major increase in the number of individuals who reported aggravated symptoms of phobias, chronic stress, PTSD and insomnia. In addition to a rise in other phobias, people experienced corona phobia and the Fear of Normal (FONO). For many individuals, a return to “normal” life means addressing mental health symptoms that intensified or arose during the pandemic.

Impact on children and adolescents

Children and adolescents witnessed one of the most turbulent times in recent history. The closure of schools and restrictions on movement had limited the scope for interaction and socializing, taking a huge toll on their social, emotional and mental well-being. Stress and isolation adversely impact brain health and holistic development, leading to lifelong challenges for children.

A UK report on young people with a history of mental health disorders noticed that 32 percent of people saw that the pandemic had worsened their mental health. Risks to family health, lockdown, loss of routine, loss of social connection and a lack of overall access can be detrimental to adolescent health in the formative years. Studies noticed significant changes in behaviour including irritability, restlessness and a lack of focus on the rise in children.

Frontline workers

Frontline workers witnessed an unprecedented demand for their services leading to an emotional and nervous breakdown in addition to chronic stress, fatigue and burnout. Studies conducted among healthcare givers noticed a rise in depression, distress, insomnia, and the need for psychosocial support.

Higher infection rates, and death of colleagues and loved ones, combined with the stress of long working hours and fewer opportunities for rest have led many health workers to the edge of burnout, with many opting to leave the profession. With the shortage of mental health care resources, frontline workers had no one to turn to, in times of distress.

The way forward

Mental health is one of the most important pillars of a healthy society. The pandemic and its aftermath have highlighted the need for mental health support and access throughout the world. The challenges in accessing relevant care at the right time have pushed the conversation toward investment in mental health to improve overall well-being.

Individuals are seeking support and recommendations from their primary healthcare providers regarding the best steps and line of action to cope with the impact of traumatic events. The first step is to recognize and address your unique challenges and look for appropriate care.