Mental health: Breaking barriers in 2022

Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed significant cracks across the public sector and healthcare sector worldwide. Inequalities are more apparent than ever. However, alongside the virus, another crisis has significantly worsened. 

The mental health crisis has been intensifying for years and has been compounded by the global pandemic. Recent research conducted by Sermo found that 86% of doctors believe that mental health issues will be the biggest non-Covid-19 issue resulting from the pandemic.

That said, although mental health issues are on the rise, for the first time, a light is finally shining on the crisis. Across the globe, there is now a concerted effort to rethink the way we approach and treat mental health. It appears that the mental health revolution is finally underway, and barriers are beginning to break in 2021.

The mental health crisis

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, global statistics on mental health were pretty bleak. According to Project Hope’s statistics, one in four individuals are affected by mental illness in a given year - a staggeringly high number.

Elsewhere, IHME’s Global Burden of Disease data from 2017 revealed that around 13% of the world’s population suffers from a mental health disorder. That’s 971 million people. It’s also important to note that this is a rising figure. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of people living with depression increased by 18%. 

Yet, while the number of people suffering from mental illness has skyrocketed, people are not getting the help that they need. Shockingly, over 70% don’t receive treatment for their mental illness. This treatment gap shoots up to between 76-85% for low and middle-income countries. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic has made the situation much worse. The virus has devastated many people’s lives, ravaging both bodies and minds. Death, job losses, financial and housing insecurity, isolation; all these poor mental health drivers have been significantly exacerbated.

People across the globe are understandably really struggling. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS), in June 2020, 19.2% of adults were estimated to be experiencing depression. That’s up from 9.7% in the previous year. Moreover, research by Sapien Labs across eight English-speaking countries found that 57% of the 49,000 respondents had experienced some kind of COVID-19-related adversity or trauma.

However, when access to mental health services is vital, research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that now there are additional barriers to treatment. From June to August 2020, the WHO surveyed 130 countries and found that 93% had experienced considerable disruption to mental health services. 

Opening up the conversation

Although at the moment, the mental health statistics appear disheartening, to say the least, there is hope. With so many people suffering from mental illness due to the pandemic, the conversation has opened up. 

Although each person’s experience of the pandemic is different, universally, people are suffering. However, the precarious nature of day-to-day life has meant that more and more people are openly talking about their fears, anxieties and mental health issues.

Attitudes are shifting too. According to research by Bupa, over the last year, 63% of business leaders have changed their perception of mental health. While before the pandemic, around 49% believed that discussing mental health in the family was a sign of weakness; this is no longer the case. Mental health literacy has now improved to the point where 68% could identify symptoms of mental ill-health. Bupa researchers called this a “generation shift” in attitudes towards mental health. This is, of course, a significant and positive step in the right direction. 

Discussing what this means for the future, speaking to Verywell Mind, Cheryl Carmin, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said: “Stigma has been a huge barrier for many people, especially because some might think they’ll be punished in by their employers or that they’re weak for getting help”. She added: “But it’s very possible that greater acceptance of mental health care is part of the new normal”.

Alongside this push towards the de-stigmatisation of mental illness, the concept of self-care has also seen significant popularisation. While its commodification into a $450 billion industry has, to some, undermined its legitimacy, at its core, self-care is more than just an expensive facemask or bath bomb. Self-care is the prioritisation of one’s mental and physical health. It’s not just younger generations who are practising self-care either (44%); 57% of Baby Boomers also practice self-care, and 64% of the Swing generation too.

Changing the landscape 

The crisis has exposed significant gaps in mental health services globally that need to be addressed. It has also highlighted the need to prioritise mental health at work, school and in the community. At present, mental health services are chronically underfunded, with countries spending on average 2% of their health budgets on mental health services. 

Speaking about the lessons the pandemic is teaching the world, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, stated: “The world is accepting the concept of universal health coverage. Mental health must be an integral part of UHC. Nobody should be denied access to mental health care because she or he is poor or lives in a remote place”.

In response to the mental health crisis, some countries have created psychosocial interventions to help those struggling with the pandemic’s psychological impact. This includes Cambodia, Guatemala, Liberia, and many other countries. 

Workplaces are also beginning to change the culture around mental health. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training is on the rise, with over 4 million people trained worldwide. Now, it appears more emphasis is starting to be placed on compassionate leadership and a better work-life balance.

Not only will changing the mental health landscape have a positive impact on the way we live our lives, but it has economic benefits too. At present, mental health conditions are estimated to cost the global economy as much as $16 trillion from 2011 to 2030. However, according to the WHO, investing in tackling depression and anxiety equates to a fourfold return. 

This fourfold return could be reinvested into mental health services and research, something a recent research paper published by the Lancet determined to be integral going forward. In the paper, 24 leading experts on mental health, including neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists and public health experts, stressed the need for mental health research to be prioritised. This, they said, would help to tackle the mental health crisis, fill research gaps, and find answers.

Ultimately, what is clear is that there must be an integrated, multi-sectoral and multinational approach for mental health barriers to break for good. Attitudes towards mental health need a serious reboot, and mental health myths and misconceptions need to be busted. The future is promising, but continued investment and focus are required, and the world can not afford to drop the ball on this issue now.

Featured image: Body & Soul Wellness Journal