Investing in mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

29 October 2020

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of millions of people across the Western Pacific Region and around the world.

Australian woman Gemma Bishop, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in her twenties, is one of the many people whose mental health has been affected by the pandemic.

“So much affects my anxiety at the moment. I think it’s because there’s so much unknown still, like what does it look like at the end of this pandemic? Is there going to be an end to this?”

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On days when her anxiety is bad, Gemma, a professional actor and the mother of a toddler, describes feeling like a car that has overheated.

“It’s a complete overload,” she says. “It’s really hard to know what to do to come out of that.”

More than 100 million people suffer from mental health disorders in the Western Pacific Region. For many people, getting the support they need is difficult.

“Going into this COVID-19 situation and having anxiety, having to manage my own needs with the needs of a toddler, it’s really hard. And then feeling the shame of feeling that way and not being able to get on with it.”

In the past, she would often turn to friends and family to support her during difficult times but now she feels more isolated.

“I struggle with not having friends around,” says Gemma. “Physical distancing is tough because I can’t have that connection that helps me so much.”

To support people’s mental health, the World Health Organization (WHO), with partner organizations United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health, is calling for a massive scale-up in investment in mental health. In some countries in the Western Pacific Region, annual spending on mental health is less than US$ 0.25 per person. But spending on mental health can result in fivefold returns in improved health and productivity when the right investments are made.

For many people, it is challenging to adapt to the new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues. Added to this comes managing the fear of contracting the virus and worry about people close to us who are particularly vulnerable. Recognizing that this situation can be particularly difficult for people with mental health conditions, WHO has issued considerations to support mental and psychological well-being during the pandemic, interim guidance for strengthening mental health and psychosocial support in the Western Pacific Region, tips and advice for maintaining mental health while at home during movement restrictions, and messages and infographics targeted at people in the Region.

For Gemma, using some of the strategies in WHO’s Doing What Matters in Times of Stress guide and audio exercises has made a big difference.

“In terms of self-care, I’m definitely trying to limit the amount of news I take in. I’ve started counselling over the phone. It has been great to actually talk in depth with a trained professional,” she says.

“We’ve got to grab those moments for self-care. So even if I get 20 minutes of yoga in the morning, it just feels so good to have carved out that time for myself, to have had a little bit of physical exercise.”

She is keen to reassure others that it is natural to feel perturbed by the pandemic: “Everybody’s allowed to be worried. It’s OK. We’re all in it together.”


Learn more about Gemma's story here