Health

PAHO establishes High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 – PAHO/WHO

Commission will develop recommendations to accelerate action for mental health in the region after the devastating effects of the pandemic

Washington DC, May 6, 2022 (PAHO) – The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa F. Etienne, launched this Friday (6) the High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19, which will develop guidelines and recommendations to reduce suffering and the impact generated on the mental health of the population of the Americas as a result of the pandemic.

The Commission’s work will focus on five main areas: pandemic recovery and mental health promotion as a priority; mental health needs of vulnerable populations; integrating mental health into universal health coverage; financing; and promotion and prevention of mental health conditions.

“We must seize the opportunity that the pandemic gives us to address long-standing weaknesses in mental health services and strengthen them for the future,” said Etienne after thanking the commissioners for their work and commitment. “Now is the time to build better mental health in the Americas,” he emphasized.

The High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 is chaired by Epsy Campbell Barr, Vice President of Costa Rica, and co-chaired by Néstor Méndez, Deputy Director General of the Organization of American States (OAS). It is also made up of leaders from health organizations, civil society and academia, as well as people with direct experience in the field.

The president of the Commission considered that the mental health and well-being of millions of people, especially women, were “gravely affected” by the pandemic, the lockdowns, school closures, telecommuting and the care of family members. Campbell Barr called for an “urgent approach to mental health” and “taking steps to prevent and respond to domestic violence, including mental health services for survivors”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects and many of them are expected to be long term. A scientific dossier published by the WHO highlighted that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic.

An analysis by PAHO in the region also suggested that a third of people who suffered from COVID-19 were diagnosed with a neurological or mental disorder, while another study carried out with the support of the Organization (The COVID-19 HEalth care wOrkErs Study, HEROES) showed that, in 2020, between 14.7% and 22% of health professionals had symptoms that led to the suspicion of depression.

After considering that the work of the new Commission “is timely, relevant and urgent”, Méndez highlighted that “a comprehensive action plan for the recovery of COVID-19 must include the prioritization of mental health with perspective and taking into account the particular situation of the women.” Furthermore, she argued that it is “an opportunity to bring about a cultural shift that can move us away from stigmatization and into more inclusive and open conversations to rebuild better mental health systems”.

Countries in the Americas have made important efforts to address growing mental health needs during the pandemic. However, the low priority given to the topic historically, with insufficient and poorly trained human resources and funding, has hampered the adequate response capacity.

Committee members will prepare a report with key evidence-based recommendations for improving mental health in the Americas and transforming mental health systems and services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report is expected to be completed in the last quarter of 2022.

press release

The Commission is composed of Katija Khan, president-elect of the Caribbean Alliance of National Psychological Associations; Shekhar Saxena, professor of Global Mental Health Practice at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health; Paulina del Río, president and co-founder of the José Ignacio Foundation, Chile; Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director of Health, Nutrition and Population and the World Bank’s Global Financing Facility; and María Elena Medina-Mora, director of the Faculty of Psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Also on the Committee are Shirley J. Holloway, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the United States; Sahar Vásquez, co-founder of Mind Health Connect, Belize; Paul Bolton, coordinator of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support at the US Agency for International Development (USAID); Ana Cristina Mendoza, a psychologist from Guatemala; Paulo Rossi Menezes, principal investigator at the University of São Paulo; Pamela Collins, director of the Global Mental Health Program at the University of Washington; Rubén Alvarado Muñoz, associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Chile; and Mary Bartram, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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