Covid-19 is aggravating mental health issues

In Summary

•COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted access to mental health services by 93 percent of the countries surveyed by World Health Organization (WHO).

•This is mainly because of lack of adequate funding. 

Mental health
Mental health
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

As we begin a new year in the midst of a global pandemic, Kenya is grappling with a mental health crisis whose enormity since the pandemic hit may be unknown.

The Ministry of Health estimates that one in every 10 Kenyans suffer from a common mental disorder. Depression and anxiety disorders are the leading causes of mental illness in Kenya.

In July 2020, the Mental Health Taskforce mandated by the president to study the status of mental health, recommended that Kenya should declare mental illness a National Emergency of epidemic proportions.

Still, the news of the release of COVID-19 vaccine brought a ray of hope of battling the pandemic that has wracked the globe for a year now. In Kenya the positivity rate is declining and people are adjusting to the new normal, with the schools reopening throughout the country. But mental health also affects children and just like adults, in most cases it is often undiagnosed. As the schools reopen, there’s much emphasis on observing the set safety guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19. Socializing and playing are vital for children’s development and now with the children having to keep social distancing and wear masks. This will likely inhibit the children’s coping mechanism. The learning institutions are ill equipped with professional counsellors to help the learners and teachers in coping with the new changes.

COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted access to mental health services by 93 percent of the countries surveyed by World Health Organization (WHO). This is mainly because of lack of adequate funding. Before the onset of COVID-19, countries were spending less than 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health according to WHO estimates.

Experts say that depression symptoms are most likely to occur three times more in populations during seasons of lockdowns and restricted movements. The required health protocols such as social distancing, isolation and the anxiety of getting an infection has had dire effects and exacerbated the likelihood of depression and mental health cases.

WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been rallying world governments to take action and invest more in mental health. He highlighted how COVID-19 has disrupted essential mental health services around the world just when they are needed most. “World leaders must move fast and decisively to invest more in life saving mental health programmes, during the pandemic and beyond,” he said.

Economic cost of mental illness

Before COVID hit the globe, WHO estimated depression and anxiety disorders cost the globe more than one trillion dollars in lost economic productivity. And for every dollar spent in treatment of mental disorders, this brings a return of four dollar worth of improved health and productivity.

The youth have been hit hard with unemployment because of the disruption in the job market. In the pre-pandemic era there were 5,341,182 unemployed Kenyan’s in a population of 13,777,600 young people according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS),

While Kenya is made of about 18 million workers in both formal and informal sectors, hundreds of thousands lost employment or business due to the pandemic.

The stigma sting

But the biggest challenge is overcoming stigma associated with the disease. Mental illness is often referred to as a hidden epidemic because of the untold stigma that causes people to feel ashamed and not seek the required medical attention. It’s the responsibility of all Kenyans to destigmatize mental illness just as former US first lady Michelle Obama once said that, “whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness and there should be no distinction.”

This year, the government and stakeholders in the health sector should prioritize investing in mental health in all the counties. In this way, the country will bounce back stronger after overcoming COVID-19.