OECD Forum Virtual Event: "Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of COVID on Mental Health"

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OECD Forum Virtual Event: "Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of COVID on Mental Health"

As part of an OECD Forum series, our virtual event Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of COVID on mental health took place on 15 April 2021.

This event has ended and registration is now closed—but don't worry, you can watch the replay below!


Anthony Gooch, Director of Public Affairs and Communications, OECD (moderator)
Francesca Colombo, Head, Health Division, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD
Rachel Clarke, Palliative care doctor; Author, Breathtaking: Life and Death in a Time of Contagion
Nina Hedegaard Nielsen, Senior Policy Adviser, Occupational Health and Safety, FH – Danish Trade Union Confederation
Husseini Manji, Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & Johnson
Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, Children's Rights & Safeguarding, Eurochild
Jolawn Victor, Chief International Officer, Headspace

One in two people will experience mental ill-health during their lifetime, and one in five are living with mental ill-health at any given time. Mental health deteriorated in all OECD countries in 2020. The share of the population experiencing anxiety and depression practically doubled in 2020, compared to the previous year. COVID-19 has caused the risk factors for mental ill-health – financial insecurity, unemployment, fear and anxiety – to increase significantly, while protective factors – social connection, employment and educational engagement, access to exercise, routine, access to health services – have all decreased. Many hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have also faced the illness or loss of a loved one from COVID-19, while everyone has been faced with the sadness and strain of being cut off from family and friends. And as the pandemic has dragged on, digital-meet-ups increasingly seem like poor substitutes for in-person social connection. Indeed, population mental health status has gone up and down in different "waves", with peaks of mental distress closely correlated with peaks in COVID- 19 deaths, and time periods when the pandemic control measures were most stringent.

But, just like the pandemic has affected us all but to different extents, in diverging ways, so too has its toll on mental health proven uneven. The COVID-19 crisis has significantly affected the life of children, teenagers, and young people. When studying, they have faced significant disruptions in their learning process and daily lives through school closures and (when possible) remote learning. When embarking on careers or requiring jobs to get by, they have had to contend with a collapse in employment opportunities and diminished social connections. Social restrictions have meant being deprived from important life-experiences marking the transition to adulthood. Young adults may face a relatively small risk to develop severe forms of COVID-19, but worldwide studies highlight that they suffer disproportionately from the mental health impacts of the crisis, with much higher rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness than the general population.

People experiencing unemployment and financial insecurity – both of which have increased markedly in 2020-21 – are also facing particularly negative mental health impacts, and higher rates of anxiety and depression. In addition, work-life balance has suffered. Many employees face longer working hours, with a large number reporting over exposure to screens and “Zoom fatigue”. For parents, the situation has been further complicated by the frequent need to home school their children, often while performing in their jobs at the very same time.

Read the report: Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 – State of Health in the EU Cycle and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on Adult Mental Health

Read the report: Health at a Glance: Europe 2020. State of Health in the EU Cycle and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on Mental Health

Care workers are another key population whose mental health has particularly suffered from the crisis. With many health systems operating at the very limits of their capacity for over a year, doctors, nurses and other critical front line workers are exhausted, facing difficult choices, and exposed to extremely high levels of suffering without always being able to alleviate it. Their staggering display of bravery, courage, endurance and compassion in the face of this crisis commands greater recognition, while their own suffering demands urgent attention.

The OECD has rapidly taken stock of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on mental health, providing an initial appraisal of the different approaches taken by countries to address the mental health impacts of the crisis. From civil society initiatives addressing loneliness through intergenerational solidarity to innovative uses of digital resources for well-being and healthier lives, and significant injections of resources into mental health systems by some OECD governments, a wealth of solutions have also emerged to provide support and relief.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to change, adapt, and experiment. While this is a major stress test, it is also an opportunity for improvement. Poor mental health has long been stigmatised, discouraging many people suffering from seeking help or treatment. Mental health services are already over-burdened and under- resourced; without decisive action from OECD governments the rising rates of depression and anxiety will mean that the gap between mental health service capacity and need widens even more. For all its woes, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fact that mental health is critical for the health of our societies, and our economies. If the current turmoil in our lives and societies propels us to give mental health the attention it deserves, our future may yet prove to be a healthier one.

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