The Growing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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While it might appear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks largely in part to the vaccine rollout and restrictions easing up, the lingering effects in regard to mental health are set to have a substantial impact across the globe. In March 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, it did so against the backdrop of a mental health crisis that already existed worldwide. In fact, the WHO previously identified mental illnesses as the most disabling in the Western world and an ever-growing concern.

The stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have only heightened this crisis, and disproportionately so for at-risk populations. The OECD reported that mental health deteriorated worldwide in 2020. Specifically, a survey performed by the U.S. Census Bureau found that the percentage of people experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety has surged amid the pandemic. Of note, more than 42% of people surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, an increase of 11% from the previous year.

Read the OECD report: "Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

For industry leaders, our task is evident. We need to double down on important research that may lead to better treatments and, potentially, cures for these conditions.

COVID-19 Diagnosis & Mental Health

Researchers are evaluating the neurological and psychiatric conditions patients developed after a COVID-19 diagnosis. A landmark study from Oxford University published in Lancet Psychiatry investigated the occurrence of a large number of neuropsychiatric outcomes in the early stages following a COVID-19 diagnosis. These conditions included brain hemorrhage, strokes, dementia, depression, anxiety and psychosis—among others.

Results showed that approximately 33% of COVID-19 patients suffered from one of these neuropsychiatric outcomes within six months of contracting the disease. The rate increased to nearly 39% among patients who were hospitalised and 47% among patients admitted to intensive care.

This means health services need to be prepared to respond to COVID-19 patients who experience these outcomes shortly after diagnosis. In a Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Networks’ survey, approximately 18% said they were not able to access mental health services because of financial issues, a fear of going to their treatment centre or their mental health care professional not being available. Limited access to mental health care, that is in part due to a current shortage of mental health professionals, has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. While some steps have been taken to address the pandemic’s impact on mental health and well-being of both specific, high-risk groups and general populations, mental illnesses are on the rise and are likely to persist.

Supporting Our First Responders

Health care workers are risking their health and their lives each day as they deal with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, putting them under unimaginable amounts of stress. As the pressure on health care systems continues to intensify, these stressors are putting a tremendous strain on the emotional and physical health of our frontline health care workers, with the very real fear of burnout.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHS

Read more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHSRead more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHS

In the months and years ahead, we’re going to have to be especially attentive to the mental health needs of our first responders. At Johnson & Johnson, our Global Community Impact has been delighted to partner with some key organisations to address mental health among frontline health care workers. We are working with Harvard SPH/Thrive Global on First Responders First, and with Save the Children on a new, multi-year global initiative to support the mental health and psychosocial well-being of children and families, and the frontline workers who serve them.

Determining At-Risk Patient Groups

We are seeing that women are at higher risk of mental illness due to the pandemic. We believe this is likely due to both biological factors and, more importantly, social factors. Women tend to take on the majority of the stresses related to children and elderly parents, in addition to performing at work. Furthermore, we’ve seen an increase in domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is clearly associated with deleterious impacts on mental health.

Beyond this, minority populations are also at risk. In a report issued by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic and black groups reported experiencing disproportionately worse mental health outcomes associated with COVID-19. Results showed that suicidal ideation was more common among adults from minority racial/ethnic groups compared with white respondents. Depression and anxiety were also more common among adults from minority racial/ethnic groups compared with white respondents. Lastly, the report also showed that COVID-19-related trauma/stress disorder was more common among adults from minority racial/ethnic groups, impacting 35.1% of Hispanic respondents and 30.4% of Black respondents, compared with 23.3% of white adults.

Joining Forces to Raise Awareness

Biological, environmental and psychosocial stressors increase the risk of acute or chronic mental illness. Among the key psychosocial stressors that can trigger depression and anxiety are acute and prolonged distress, the loss of a loved one, economic distress and social isolation. As a result, it is not surprising that current statistics from the global pandemic confirm the substantial impact on mental health, and that there is a disproportionate effect among certain groups.

As a society, with the help of vital groups like OECD, WHO and the United Nations, we need to come together to raise awareness of this mental health crisis, reduce the stigma associated with mental illnesses and ensure all patients have better access to resources, treatment and support. To address this “silent” or “parallel” pandemic, countries around the globe must make mental health a public health priority in their responses to COVID-19 and beyond, so that we can better deal with the incoming tsunami of needs. In the workplace, we need to focus on employee mental health, including diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and also make sure we are addressing youth mental health in schools. At Johnson & Johnson, we are committed to bringing together an inclusive and open research culture, focusing on the pillars of science, innovation and society to tackle these psychiatric and mental illnesses. My colleagues and I share a common goal: to ensure a future where we can both predict and prevent brain and psychiatric disorders, improving lives and society on a global scale. And that in the future, the world will be quite a different place for people who have disorders of the brain—a place with no stigma and no shame about mental illness.

Find more about the OECD Virtual Event: Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of COVID on mental health that took place on 15 April 2021 and watch the replay below!

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Husseini Manji

Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & Johnson

As Global Head for Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Science for Minds, Husseini Manji, MD, FRCPC leads the new initiative aimed at addressing the significant unmet needs of patients with neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. His team is working to catalyze the development of novel and improved solutions for our patients worldwide with a focus on dementia; serious mental health disorders, especially those affecting youth; and innovative digital solutions/technologies.
Previously, Dr. Manjiwas Global Therapeutic Head for Neuroscience at Janssen Research & Development, one of the Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. Prior to joining J&J, Dr. Manji was Chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Pathophysiology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Director of the NIH Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program, the largest of its kind in the world.
His research has helped to conceptualize neuropsychiatric conditions as genetically influenced disorders of synapses and circuits and has prompted the investigation of novel therapeutics for patients. Dr. Manji is a Visiting Professor at Duke University and was recently appointed an Honorary Fellow at Oxford University.

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