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“The greatest need was to be listened to”: The importance of mental health and psychosocial support during COVID-19

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Learning from COVID-19:
Increased need for mental health and psychosocial support

COVID-19 is exacerbating the immense mental toll on the millions of people around the world already living through disasters, conflicts and emergencies, who are routinely exposed to distressing experiences such as losing loved ones, homes and livelihoods.

Early in 2020, as the world was beginning to realise the magnitude of the humanitarian and societal consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to see the huge psychological implications of the virus itself and the measures to prevent it. Worries and fears about losing loved ones, becoming sick or about health systems being over-loaded continue to be common among the people we support. Moreover, measures imposed by governments to prevent the spread of the disease, including lockdown restrictions, quarantines, physical distancing, and their economic and social consequences, further increase this distress and the risk of mental health problems.

The increase in psychological distress caused by the virus is demonstrated in a recent survey we conducted across various countries.

Key findings include:

• 51% of adults perceive that COVID-19 negatively affected their mental health;

• Almost two thirds of respondents across seven countries agree that taking care both of mental and physical health has become more important since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

The strong stigma associated with COVID-19 affects people who have contracted the virus and their families, and has serious consequences for people who are already marginalised because they live with mental health concerns. Combined, these factors prevent people from accessing mental health and psychosocial support services, and make it more difficult for service providers to effectively access affected individuals, families and communities.

Uncertainty about the disease, how long it will last, and the long-term impacts on health and society is another aggravating factor for mental health. There are numerous myths and misconceptions about the disease – the importance of access to accurate and timely information cannot be overstated.

Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff providing mental health and psychosocial support often operate under difficult conditions, responding to multiple and complex needs. COVID-19 is now an additional challenge. The examples included in this report demonstrate this complexity and the importance of a holistic and integrated response that addresses the diverse mental health and psychosocial needs of people affected by the pandemic.

Working closely with the affected populations and involving them in the response is critical to understanding their needs and finding the most relevant and sustainable solutions. This is one of the main strengths of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — our millions of local volunteers and staff are members of the very communities they serve. This proximity and long-term accompaniment give a unique understanding of contextsensitive approaches, and how to work with communities to strengthen resilience.

Preparedness and operational experience significantly improve readiness and capability to address mental health and psychosocial needs, particularly where conditions quickly change. Both are key elements in the two landmark resolutions that were adopted by the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2019; “Addressing mental health and psychosocial needs of people affected by armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies” and “Time to act: Tackling epidemics and pandemics together”.

COVID-19 has helped to focus public and political attention on mental health and psychosocial needs in all societies. Increased attention to mental health and psychosocial support services is at least a very positive development which can help leverage the political support and additional resources required. The pandemic has also forced adaptation and innovation — such as the use of digital solutions and tools — so that critical services and care can be delivered. While these measures have contributed to making mental health and psychosocial support services accessible to hundreds of thousands of people, those without access to the necessary digital tools are being excluded.

Increased investments in promoting good mental health and addressing mental health problems are essential to enable individuals, families and communities to cope effectively with the challenges they face due to the pandemic. This should include integrated measures to address mental health and psychosocial needs across humanitarian response, alongside long-term investments in local and community-based mental health and psychosocial support capacity and systems-building. Early and effective access to mental health and psychosocial support is key to creating sustainable and healthy local communities.

In this report we shed light upon real-life experiences and insights from our global work with mental health and psychosocial support during the pandemic. Let us build on these important learnings from the current pandemic, so we can respond even better to mental health and psychosocial needs in the future – and leave no one behind.