Jorge Camargo
Expert Contributor

Mental Health: The Other COVID-19 Impact We Need to See

By Jorge Camargo | Wed, 01/06/2021 - 09:00

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world's health systems, both private and governmental, to the test by exposing the fragility of their foundations, where those who care for patients and solve health problems are rewarded, leaving aside those whose fundamental reason is disease prevention. Likewise, this global phenomenon has shown us that mental problems and their consequences affect people more than we thought. 

Mental health includes emotional, psychological and social well-being. It involves the way people think, feel and act, and helps determine the correct management of stress, interpersonal relationships and sound decision-making. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.

The six main, nonchronic mental disorders include depression, general anxiety, post-traumatic syndrome, social anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Most of these diseases, when detected on time, are controllable and allow the person to act properly in society. Treatments in most cases include medicines and psychotherapy, depending on the disease and its severity.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) pre-pandemic estimates, annual economic losses due to depression and anxiety alone are almost $1 trillion. On the other hand, investing in treatment for these two diseases generates a return of $5 for every dollar spent. The benefits of a healthy population will be enjoyed by nations that place mental health as an important issue on their agenda.

In the US alone, of the US$3.5 trillion invested in health in 2019, 75 percent was allocated to chronic diseases, which have no solution. Only 6.4 percent of spending goes to mental illnesses, and from there, half of the monetary resource goes to medicines for depression. This low outlay, coupled with inappropriate models of mental healthcare, magnifies the problem; the situation will not be solved by spending more, but by how it is spent.

One in four adults will suffer from a mental disorder in any given year (57.7 million people in the US). The main cause of disability in adults between 18 and 45 years old, which represents the most productive stage of a person, is mental illness. The urgency of this issue is increased by the fact that, statistically, adults who suffer from a serious mental condition live 25 years less.


From June to August 2020, WHO carried out a global study with the aim of evaluating the alterations suffered by mental health, neurological and substance use treatment services as a consequence of the COVID-19. The information gathered would allow the analysis of the measures taken by the countries to face these problems and their speed of adaptation. Among the results, it is worth noting that:

More than 60 percent of the countries reported changes in mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents, the elderly and women who require prenatal or postnatal services.
30 percent of the countries reported anomalies in access to medicines to treat mental, neurological and drug-related disorders.
Nearly three-quarters reported disruptions in mental health services in schools and workplaces.
While 89 percent of the countries surveyed indicated that mental health and psychological support were part of their pandemic response strategies, only 17 percent of these countries have adequate funding for these activities. Compared to the US, as noted above, which spends about 6.4 percent of its budget on mental health treatment, this is still much higher than the 1 percent (at most) spent by other countries.

As with the financial contributions of country’s to mental health during the COVID phenomenon, research and ongoing monitoring efforts are scarce. Half of the respondents said they were not collecting information on mental disorders among people with the virus, and only one-tenth were investigating the effects of the virus on mental health.

Finally, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they had a health, education and social NGO platform to monitor mental health as a response to COVID-19.

With current technology, telepsychology can be performed remotely, breaking paradigms of high costs and social rejection by being a more private service. The convenience of being available at any time, anonymity when patients seek not to involve other people, lower costs, guidance for a greater number of people, 24-hour service, support and remote monitoring and data collection are the advantages that the union between technology and health have offered.

Countries surveyed by WHO have stated the options they have used and combined for the continuation of mental health services in the face of the pandemic: 70 percent have used telemedicine/teletherapy, 68 percent have used helplines, and 60 percent have relied on training in basic psychosocial skills, such as psychological first aid.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has revealed the chronic funding shortfalls that mental health systems have experienced over the years and that as the pandemic continues, the demand for such programs will increase.

WHO recommends the allocation of resources to implement mental health strategies as an integral part of the COVID-19 response and recovery plans and to strengthen monitoring of changes in the availability, delivery and utilization of services at the country level.

In addition, the role of technology in developing channels has been crucial in ensuring timely, safe and affordable follow-up for individuals who require follow-up or support for conditions triggered by COVID-19. At the same time, information readings and analyses are quickly developed to support government decision-making on the basis of general or segmented, historical or real-time data. The combination of national resources and the potential offered by technology will make it possible to tackle mental illness from a new perspective and, with it, to develop new methodologies that, like what is happening today, will be adapted to tomorrow's circumstances.

Photo by:   Jorge Camargo