Mental health should be a human right for all

Press release

Athens, Greece, 22 July 2021

In a bold demonstration of solidarity, senior health officials from the WHO European Region today made clear their commitment to address the mental health crisis unfolding across the Region, made worse by the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mental health impacts of the pandemic will be long-term and far-reaching. From anxieties around virus transmission, to the psychological impact of lockdowns and self-isolation, to the effects of unemployment, financial worries and social exclusion, to barriers to accessing in-person care, everyone is affected in one way or another.

It is not just infection or worry about getting infected that has affected people’s mental health. The stress brought about by socioeconomic inequalities and the impacts of quarantine, lockdown and school/work closures has also had a huge impact.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions are disproportionately likely to contract COVID-19, but the pandemic and its effects, including significant disruptions to mental health services, have also exacerbated their mental health conditions.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “People in the European Region are quite literally breaking down under the strain of COVID-19 and its consequences. The pandemic has shaken the world. More than 4 million lives lost globally, livelihoods ruined, families and communities forced apart, businesses bankrupted, and people deprived of opportunities. These consequences of the pandemic have exacted an enormous toll on the mental health and well-being of people in the European Region.

“Yet the pandemic, which has been devastating in so many ways, provides an opportunity for countries to re-think and re-form their mental health services. It is an opportunity no country can afford to waste if we are to build back better and stronger.

“Mental health and well-being should be seen as fundamental human rights. Improving public mental health services is a win-win for everyone. It won’t just mitigate the mental health impacts of COVID-19, it will also support the sustainable improvement of overall mental health, result in economic savings which also promote economic recovery, and support the achievement of wide-ranging policy objectives, including achieving universal health coverage by 2030.”

Dr Vasileios Kikilias, Minister of Health, Hellenic Republic, said: “There is no question that the pandemic has impacted the mental health of people of all ages, particularly teenagers, young people and children. Scientists, specialists and WHO, together with Member States, need to devise and implement policies that will assist our fellow human beings who are in need.”

Mr Margaritis Schinas, Vice President, Promoting our European Way of Life, European Commission, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already existing huge mental health challenge that is increasingly getting more complex and diversified. There is no excuse for delays and complacency in our answers to the immediate and longer-term consequences of this health, social and economic crisis. Our response will be holistic and above all anthropocentric. Together with WHO we are joining forces to build a solid Mental Health Coalition in order to address and mitigate the mental health impact of the pandemic.”

Katerina, a 38-year-old in Greece, has been receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder since 2002. She had been coping well with a mixture of therapy and support groups, but when the pandemic hit, her life was turned upside down.

Katerina said: “During the pandemic my daily life changed abruptly. I had to comply with the general instructions observing all personal protection measures. Unfortunately, the pressure of social isolation led to increased anxiety, reviving my past experiences. On top of this, the interruption of my in-person support groups led me to agree with my psychiatrist to increase my treatment. At the same time, all visits to my father were cancelled for his own safety, even though he has been my carer for many years. I call on leaders to listen to the voices of those with mental health problems, so our views can inform decision-making at all levels.”

At the request of the WHO Regional Director for Europe, a technical advisory group (TAG) was established in February 2021 to provide advice and guidance to Member States of the European Region and other interested parties on the key mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to suggest critical actions to be taken by national authorities in response.

The TAG has produced the following recommendations for Member States.

General population and communities:

  • Improve access to culturally adapted mental health services through digital and other means.
  • Help people improve resilience and cope with stress and loneliness.
  • Provide occupational and/or financial support to those unable to work.
  • Promote psychological support initiatives in the workplace.
  • Address the social determinants of mental health, such as poverty and unemployment.
  • Monitor changes in mental health at the community level.

Vulnerable groups:

  • Provide more community support for adolescents and young adults.
  • Increase mental health support in schools and universities.
  • Provide educational support for lost learning.
  • Promote mental health support for those directly impacted by COVID-19.
  • Develop emergency preparedness guidance for people with disabilities and in long-term care.

Mental health services:

  • Strengthen mental health support services as an integral component of the COVID-19 response.
  • Provide person-centred, community-based services using innovative approaches.
  • Ensure mental health services are legally, operationally and financially safeguarded.

Health- and social-care workers:

  • Ensure safe, fair and supportive working conditions for frontline health and care workers, including through the provision of appropriate protective equipment and revised pay and conditions.
  • Increase access to mental health and psychosocial training and support.
  • Provide mental health workers and frontline responders with training in preparedness and response to infectious diseases and other public health emergencies.

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