By Mary Hearty

Mental health conditions have posed a great concern during this COVID-19 crisis as these numbers continue to rise especially in patients with non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

During a virtual meeting hosted by World Health Organization (WHO) on mental health and non-communicable diseases amid COVID-19, Dr Devora Kestel, Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the WHO confirmed this.

“Globally, mental health and substance use during COVID-19 face challenges like increase in rate of these issues, inadequate funds, disruption of services and inadequate attention,” Dr Kestel said.

Disruption of services have been brought by measures put in place by states and locals governments to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus including observing social distancing, lockdowns and staying at home, among others.
For example, majority of cancer patients have been unable to go for long distance treatments or got to nearby hospitals due to lockdowns and in order to maintain physical distancing.

According to WHO, people living with NCDs like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory illnesses are at higher risk of becoming severely ill with the Coronavirus and related illness like mental health conditions.

“The pandemic has acted as amplifier to these diseases, we therefore need a paradigm shift in the healthcare sector to support people living with non-communicable diseases to adjust with the impacts of the pandemic,” Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Head of the Secretariat for the WHO Global Coordination Mechanism on the Prevention and Control of NCDs advised.

According to research, many countries have partially or completely interrupted healthcare services. For instance, survey indicate that nearly 53% of the countries have partially or completely disrupted services for hypertension treatment, while 49% of diabetes treatments and diabetes-related complications have been disrupted.
Moreover, about 42% of cancer treatments have been disrupted, as cardiovascular emergencies experience 31% of the disruptions.

During the meeting, Dr Mikkelsen stated that 82% of WHO member states have responded to these challenges partially or completely.

Among the response action plans that were discussed during the meeting to help address mental health and NCDs amid the pandemic include reaching out to people living with these illnesses.

“There need to be more health workers extended at the grass root level to attend to people living with NCDs by giving them psychosocial support during this tough time, instead of going to the hospital,” Dr Cherian Varghese, Coordinator of the Department of NCD Management at WHO said.

Moreover, he recommended health treatment modifications to prevent exposing this vulnerable group to COVID-19 at healthcare facilities.

“For instance, people living with cancer need to be given medicines for 90 days to help them adjust with COVID-19 impacts,” Dr Varghese explained.
Dr Varghese added that healthcare facilities need to have digital platforms for this vulnerable group to access healthcare services virtually during this pandemic.

Although, many people in low income countries lack access to digital devices like smartphones. Dr Mikkelsen suggested: “If we have to go to digital healthcare, we have to consider equity.”

Additionally, WHO have developed policy briefs addressing mental health concerns, and documents explaining how to deal with the problem including a document on Basic psychological skills.

Dr Fahmy Hanna, from the WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, who also attended the meeting encouraged all sectors including education sector to help scale up social help services during this difficult time.

WHO encourages a joint effort between public and private sectors to use COVID-19 to improve mental health services before the next emergency occurs.