By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia
All people require access to quality mental health care and effective treatments that protect and promote overall health and well-being. Globally, nearly one in 10 people have a mental health condition. Depression is a leading cause of disability. An estimated 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol. A suicide occurs every 40 seconds. Most mental health conditions can be effectively treated at relatively low cost. And yet more than a quarter of the world’s population lives in a country where there is less than one psychiatrist for every 100 000 people. In the WHO South-East Asia Region, four out of every five people who require mental health services are unable to access them. The Region has the lowest per capita number of mental health workers. By scaling up investments in quality mental health care, all countries in the Region can significantly enhance mental health, well-being and resilience. Given the immense social and economic impact of COVID-19, countries and partners must act with speed and scale to secure and apply the necessary funds, as underscored by the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day campaign – Move for mental health: let’s invest.
The Region has in recent years made steady progress to improve access to mental health care and treatment as part of its Flagship Priorities on addressing noncommunicable diseases, scaling up emergency risk management and achieving universal health coverage. Most Member States have developed national mental health policies that have been integrated into national health policies. Specific regional strategies on suicide prevention, autism spectrum disorders and the harmful use of alcohol continue to be rolled out, with a focus on strengthening services at the primary level and promoting multisectoral buy-in. The Region continues to be a global leader in the provision of mental health and psychosocial support services in emergency settings, for which WHO’s mhGAP Programme has proven particularly valuable. Access for all to need-specific, culturally sensitive mental health care following an acute event is vital to promoting a strong social and economic recovery and to ensuring that mental health care is mainstreamed at all levels of service delivery.
The vast social and economic impact of COVID-19 highlights the critical need for all countries in the Region to invest in quality mental health care, which must be part of an overall increase in health spending. Across the Region, services for mental health care – including access to psychiatric medicines – have in recent months experienced significant disruptions, which WHO has been supporting Member States to overcome through innovative service delivery models such as telemedicine and via novel ways of securing access to medicines such as door-step deliveries. WHO continues to strengthen the capacity of health workers to detect, manage and treat mental health issues through virtual trainings and webinars, and will continue to facilitate the identification of best practices that can be adapted and rolled out to scale, especially at the community level. The Region’s recently adopted Ministerial Declaration for a Collective COVID-19 Response highlights the ongoing need for countries to maintain essential health services, including for mental health, to strengthen the response and build health system resilience into the recovery and beyond.
In this International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, special efforts must be made to protect and promote the mental health and well-being of health workers, which has come under great pressure in the ongoing pandemic response. To prevent burnout, minimize stress and enhance the mental well-being of health workers, facility administrators should appropriately balance working hours and rotate workers from higher-stress to lower-stress functions. Personal protective equipment must be readily accessible to all. Administrators must ensure that financial resources are available to call up additional staff and pay overtime and sick leave. Leaders across sectors must continue to apply a zero-tolerance approach to social stigma, verbal aggression and violence directed at health workers, and must continue to celebrate and support the health workforce.
There is no health without mental health, for which sustained and scaled up investments are needed. WHO will continue to provide its full support to countries and partners in the Region to strengthen the provision of need-specific, culturally sensitive mental health care and treatments throughout the COVID-19 response and into the recovery and beyond, in line with its strategic preparedness and response plan, the Region’s Flagship Priorities, WHO’s “triple billion” targets and Sustainable Development Goal 3. With crisis comes opportunity, and we must seize this World Mental Health Day to accelerate progress on ensuring all people in the Region can access the mental health care and effective treatments they require to stay healthy, well and resilient. For a healthier, more sustainable social and economic future, together we must act – and invest – now.