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24th Oct 2021

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WHO: Covid will be a 'dual pandemic' - physical and mental

  • The pandemic has been associated with a sharp increase in requests to mental health services (Photo: Koen Jacobs)
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After a year-and-a-half since the first lockdowns and 'stay-at-home' policies in Europe, anxiety and depressive symptoms directly arising from the pandemic remain high among the population - and are now becoming a major concern for experts.

Covid-19 in fact brought a "dual pandemic" - of which the full impact had not yet become apparent, Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, country health policy director at the European branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), told EUobserver on Thursday (30 September).

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  • 'What we learned during this pandemic is that everyone is vulnerable, said Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, country health policy director at the European branch of the World Health Organization (Photo: WHO Europe)

Many countries in Europe are seeing a sharp increase in requests to mental health services, not only from those who had a pre-existing condition before the pandemic, but also amongst people who had never experienced mental problems before.

"What we learned during this pandemic is that everyone is vulnerable," said Azzopardi-Muscat, adding evidence suggests the effects of Covid-19 can be similar to those related to "post-traumatic stress disorder" which often only manifest a while after the event.

However, according to the medical doctor, "there is still time to prevent the full consequences of the pandemic from taking place," ensuring that the problems of those who have been mildly affected are temporary and do not become a long-life condition.

"Covid-19 has posed a challenge for all segments of society but it has also provided a unique opportunity to reflect on what needs to change, and mental health is one of the areas that can benefit from being in this situation where people are actually rethinking the priorities," she said.

"But first we need to acknowledge that what was done before was not enough," she added. "The next step is to go from words to action".

The pandemic revealed gaps in mental health services across the EU, especially related to the access to timely, affordable and high-quality treatments.

Generally, the health workforce is currently short of psychiatrists and social workers and patients are not well-informed in many cases.

Aiming to address these and other deficiencies, WHO Europe launched on Thursday a pan-European coalition of 53 participating countries to run from now to 2025.

The collaboration will focus on shifting mental health care from psychiatric institutions to primary care centres, stepping up investment in preventive services, making the mental-health profession more attractive and improving the collection of data at the national level.

"We want to bring mental health on the same level as physical health," Azzopardi-Muscat said, but adding there is no good baseline against which to set concrete targets, due to the lack of quality data. "What you cannot measure is not visible", she explained.

(Photo: World Happiness Report)

'Silent pandemic'

Experts and politicians have warned about the "silent mental health pandemic" that menaces many children and young people's future, since they are one of the age groups most affected by the pandemic.

"Everyone has been affected, but not everyone has been affected to the same extent," Azzopardi-Muscat said.

"Children and young people suffered not only in their educational attainment but also in their mental and emotional development," she added.

Up to one-in-two young people between 18 and 29 are currently suffering depression or anxiety. That is also the case for one-out-of-five frontline workers, such as doctors and nurses.

However, according to Azzopardi-Muscat, the only solution to stop this silent pandemic is to arrive at the point where people are not afraid to talk to their parents, their employer or their doctor about the fact that they are not feeling right.

It is estimated that, under a pre-pandemic scenario, 10-percent of Europe's population suffers from some sort of mental health problem each year.

Across the EU, 84 million people are currently diagnosed with mental health issues, with the overall cost of mental health estimated at €600bn, according to a 2018 European Commission report.

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