The “devastating effect” of COVID-19 on mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a “devastating effect” on mental health in the Americas and has triggered violence against women and children, according to a recent study by the Pan American Health Organization.

The analyzed data show that more than four out of ten Brazilians have had anxiety problems and six out of ten from depression; symptoms of depression increased fivefold in Peru, and the proportion of Canadians with high levels of anxiety quadrupled as a result of the pandemic.

A study conducted in Mexico documented clinically significant post-traumatic stress symptoms in almost a third of the population. In the United States, rates of anxiety and depression reached as high as 37% and 30%, respectively, at the end of 2020, up from 8.1% and 6.5% respectively in 2019.

The study “Strengthening Mental Health Responses to COVID-19 in the Americas: An Analysis of Health Policy and Recommendations” was recently published in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas.
“The message is clear: we’ve been operating in crisis mode since the beginning of the pandemic, “said Dr. Anselm Hennis, PAHO Director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.” In addition to managing the fear of becoming ill and the trauma of losing loved ones to the new coronavirus, the The people of the Americas have suffered unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, and the adverse impact on mental health has been widespread, “he said.

Additionally, hotline records, police reports indicated an increase in reported cases of domestic violence, particularly child abuse and intimate partner violence against women, exacerbating the high rates of violence in the region, which were reportedly three times the global average before the pandemic.


ICU staff working to save COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China in April 2020

Yun Liu

ICU staff working to save COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China in April 2020

Mental health of COVID-19 sufferers

The document also analyzes the consequences for the mental health of people who suffered from the coronavirus. “The existing data suggest that a third of people who suffered from COVID-19 have been diagnosed with a neurological or mental disorder“said lead author of the PAHO document, Amy Tausch.” We hope that the increased burden of mental health may be one of the most important long-term effects of COVID-19, “she predicted.

In people with no psychiatric history, the diagnosis of COVID-19 was associated with a higher incidence of a first psychiatric diagnosis in the next 14 to 90 days.

The pandemic has also contributed to the relapse and exacerbation of mental health symptoms in people with pre-existing conditions. Additionally, people with a recent diagnosis of a mental disorder were found to have an increased risk of COVID-19 infection and also a higher frequency of adverse outcomes, representing an additional risk factor for worsening mental health.


Nursing students perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a manikin.

UN Mexico / Teresita Moreno

Nursing students perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a manikin.

Healthcare workers

Frontline and healthcare workers, who face increased physical risks, high job demands and social stigmatization, have also been hit hard by the pandemic.

In May 2021, the number of healthcare workers who had been infected with COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean exceeded 1.8 million, while 9,000 had died from the virus. In addition, the 53% of public health workers in the United States reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the previous two weeks, including depression (32%), anxiety (30.3%), post-traumatic stress (36.8%) and suicidal thoughts (8.4%). Studies conducted in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago also found high rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia among healthcare workers.


The COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact on children's mental health.

IOM / Kaye Viray

The COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact on children’s mental health.

Out-of-school children

In March 2020, more than 154 million children (95% of those enrolled) in Latin America and the Caribbean were out of school due to COVID-19. One year later, 114 million of these children had not yet returned to school. In addition to the closure of schools, which disrupts daily routines, learning and socialization, children and adolescents have faced the loss of loved ones and greater adversity in their family environments, including an increased risk of domestic violence.

In 2020, 27% of adolescents and young people surveyed in Latin America and the Caribbean reported feeling anxiety and 15% depression. Another study conducted among 15 to 29-year-olds in Latin American and Caribbean countries found that 52% had experienced more significant stress and 47% had episodes of anxiety or panic attacks during their quarantine


Depression produces sadness and loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed.  Image: WHO

Depression produces sadness and loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed. Image: WHO

Without medical attention

At a time when care and treatment are most needed, the post notes continuous interruptions in services essential for mental, neurological and substance use disorders in more than half of the countries of the region.
“Lack of access to counseling services, reduced availability of in-person care, and school closings have limited the ways in which people can receive mental health support, leaving many isolated, vulnerable and at greater risk. “, considered Dr. Renato Oliveira, head of PAHO’s Mental Health and Substance Use Unit.
The authors request that act immediately to strengthen mental health systems and services in the region, with special attention to integrating psychosocial support in sectors and settings such as primary health care, education, social services, and community support systems. To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the authors stress that mental health must be incorporated into emergency preparedness, response and recovery plans.
Before the pandemic, it had been estimated that mental disorders will cost the world economy $ 16 trillion in 2030 if not addressed. Additional investment is urgently needed, and as countries increase investment in mental health services, the authors urge that groups in vulnerable situations be given higher priority.
“Mental health has long been a neglected area of ​​public health in the Americas. Governments should seize the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to bolster their mental health services and make the necessary investments to rebuild better and better. fairer way “, emphasized the doctor Oliveira.

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