PAHO Establishes High-Level Commission on Mental Health and Covid-19

WASHINGTON, DC – The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr. Carissa F. Etienne has launched a High-level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 aimed at preparing guidelines and recommendations to reduce the impact on mental health caused by the pandemic and the related suffering in the population of the region. 

childcovidImage courtesy of PAHO.According to PAHO, the commission’s work will focus on five key areas: Recovering from the pandemic and promoting mental health as a priority; the mental health needs of vulnerable populations; integrating mental health into universal health coverage; financing; and promoting the prevention of mental health conditions. 

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

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, the Belizean-born Assistant Director General of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS). 

It is also made up of leaders of health organizations, civil society, academics, “and people with direct experience in the subject.”

Campbell Barr said that the mental health and well-being of millions, especially women, have been “severely affected” by the pandemic, confinements, school closures, telecommuting and care for family members. 

She called for “urgently addressing mental health” and “taking steps to prevent and respond to domestic violence, including mental health services for survivors.” 

PAHO said the COVID-19 pandemic has had “devastating effects,” adding that “many are expected to be long-term.”

A scientific dossier published by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic. 

A PAHO analysis also noted that one-third of people who suffered from COVID-19 in the region were diagnosed with a neurological or mental disorder, while another study conducted with the support from PAHO (COVID-19 Health Care Workers Study – HEROES) showed that, in 2020, between 14.7 percent and 22 percent of health personnel in the region presented symptoms of depression. 

Calling the work of the new Commission “timely, relevant and urgent,” Méndez said “a comprehensive plan of action for the recovery of COVID-19 must include the prioritization of mental health with a human rights perspective and taking into account the particular situation of women.” 

He also said that this is “an opportunity to bring about a cultural shift that can move us away from stigmatization and lead us to more inclusive and open conversations to build better mental health systems again.” 

PAHO said regional countries have made significant efforts to meet growing mental health needs during the pandemic. 

But it said the historically low priority given to the issue—with insufficient and funding and under-skilled human resources—has hampered the ability to respond adequately. 

PAHO said the commissioners will prepare a report with key evidence-based recommendations to improve mental health in the Americas, including the Caribbean, and to transform mental health systems and services following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report is expected to be completed in the last quarter of 2022.