The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues, which already affected millions, with the impact likely to be felt for years to come. At a high-level summit organized by WHO/Europe and the Government of Greece, ministers and country representatives from the WHO European Region sent a strong message on the importance of prioritizing mental health in the recovery process.
In a groundbreaking declaration adopted during the Summit, ministers recognized the mental health impact of COVID-19 and called for greater investment in mental health services and the placing of mental health support at the heart of the post COVID-19 recovery agenda.
The hybrid meeting, which spanned 2 days on 22–23 July, welcomed high-level political figures, renowned senior technical and scientific experts and community advocates. Discussions focused on critical aspects of mental health, including on mental health services, the impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable groups, aspects of quality of care and the specific impacts on health and care workers.
Throughout the conference, the WHO Technical Advisory Group on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 in the European Region played an important role – following their work collecting evidence highlighting important research, sharing their expertise, and publishing recommendations on how Member States and stakeholders can place mental health at the centre of the recovery from COVID-19.
In addition to exacerbating existing mental health issues for millions across the Region, the pandemic has also brought mental health to the forefront of global discussions surrounding health and well-being, while creating opportunities to address issues like stigma, vulnerabilities and silence.
Speaking to delegates, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, stressed the work already undertaken by WHO/Europe on mental health and emphasized the opportunity that the pandemic presents when it comes to rethinking mental health and particularly mental health care: “Events that shake us to the core, profoundly and collectively change us. Among those ongoing changes, is the general perception of mental health and what it means – a question which, now due to COVID-19, has become a top priority.
“This pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink services, heal the fractures in society that have been exposed and the gaps that have been magnified. This is an opportunity no country can squander – and today marks a turning point in our effort.”
Renewed commitment to mental health
With the spread of COVID-19, the resulting lockdowns and other limits on movement and social interaction have caused a rise in mental health issues, particularly those associated with personal safety, self-isolation, unemployment, financial worries and social exclusion. In many cases, services were disrupted due to lockdown restrictions and reallocation of health professionals.
Mental health services
Rethinking mental health services was a central part of the Summit. In separate sessions, delegates heard from health-care workers and service users – highlighting the challenges of the pandemic.
Katerina Messimeri, from the Social Cooperative of Corfu, spoke of the importance of patient-centric models, saying: “When we contribute to patients, they contribute back to us”.
At the same time, rethinking mental health services also requires support and investment from governments, as Maria Dimopoulou, Head Nurse at the Mental Health Centre of Corfu explained: “Governments need to focus on strengthening the voice of the mentally ill. We need to focus on the regional and the national recovery models – a holistic and human based approach to mental health care. We need to invest financially and above all in human resources – because strong goals and strong people can build the future. And WHO can ensure that no one is left behind”.
Impact on young people
While taking less of a physical toll on young people, the pandemic has caused particular hardship for youth, especially due to the disruption to schooling and their social lives.
Chryssa, a volunteer and activist with Euro Youth Mental Health, spoke of the mental health challenges faced by young people: “One of the most difficult things during this pandemic is that we still need to show up as students or as employees and act as if nothing has happened. We still have to give 100% of ourselves to what we’re doing because life still goes on, even though it barely resembles life as we knew it”.
But while speaking fondly of her volunteering, Chryssa also explained the need for decision-makers to take mental health seriously: “I do know that volunteering cannot be the solution for all the problems that we face. No matter how hard we try as volunteers… I strongly believe that mental health services should be further supported by the government and policy-makers even more now as mental health issues are starting to reveal the real depth of the problem that the pandemic has caused or exacerbated”.
Quality of care
Ensuring the highest quality of mental health care is as essential as highlighting the importance of support for health workers and service users. Quality of care has received increased focus in recent months, with WHO/Europe and the Greek government opening a new sub-office in Athens focusing on quality of care, and government representatives discussed the issue in depth at the Summit.
Quality health services, particularly linked to mental health, were identified as a crucial part of the recovery from COVID-19. This is an issue that affects all areas of health care but is especially crucial for the mental health sector.
As we are now at a crossroads in this critical moment, governments, policy-makers and international actors are rethinking their approach to the quality of mental health care, with patient safety featuring prominently in the discussion.
European Mental Health Coalition
On 30 September in Brussels, WHO/Europe will launch the European Mental Health Coalition, with the attendance of Queen Mathilde of Belgium. The Coalition will convene all affected stakeholders to transform societal attitudes about mental health, aiming to:
- address stigma and discrimination;
- build accessible, multidisciplinary mental health services in local communities;
- revamp primary health care;
- strengthen investment in a fit-for-purpose mental health workforce;
- address structural and environmental determinants of poor mental health.