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Story | Research
17 May 2020

Urgent need to increase mental healthcare budgets, says WHO expert as QF/WISH host global discussion

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Proper communication about COVID-19 is essential to the mental wellbeing of society, including groups such as children and elderly people, according to Dr. Dévora Kestel.

Photograph: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

Dr. Dévora Kestel says community-based services to safeguard mental health need to be provided “at every level” of health ecosystems

A World Health Organization expert on mental health says the world may not be aware of the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, and budgets to tackle its impact on people’s wellbeing need to be increased.

Dr. Dévora Kestel, the organization’s Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, was among the speakers in the latest online edition of Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series, held in collaboration with the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), which focused on the challenges surrounding people’s mental wellbeing amid the ongoing lockdown and how they must be addressed.

And she said: “Numbers have shown that, in an emergency context, one in five people are likely to suffer from a mental health condition.

Dr. Dévora Kestel, the World Health Organization’s Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

“If we understand that a crisis such as this has the potential to impact so heavily on people across a large part of the world, we can expect that the number of people with mental health conditions will grow, so it is essential to be prepared to respond to these conditions and provide answers to this population about how they can safeguard their mental health.”

Despite the urgent need to provide mental health services amid the current pandemic, Dr. Kestel explained that budgets create challenges and constraints.

“We are in a situation where only two per cent of the healthcare system budget goes toward mental health on a global level, when the prevalence of mental health issues among populations is much higher than this percentage,” she said.

We need to have a system that provides community-based mental healthcare at every level of the health system, such as primary care and specialized care.

Dr. Dévora Kestel

“There is an urgent need to increase this budget on the global level in order to make sure that every country has the services to provide the necessary response and attention to people whose mental wellbeing is affected by this crisis.

“We need to have a system that provides community-based mental healthcare at every level of the health system, such as primary care and specialized care. Within that network of services, there may be a need to conduct mental health screening, but first we need to make sure that the services are there, as they will identify what kind of care is needed for each person.”

Dr. Kestel emphasized the importance of encouraging people to speak about the mental health-related challenges they may be facing, whether during COVID-19 or beyond.

Just as we should not be ashamed when we break a leg, we should not feel ashamed when we suffer from a mental health issue.

Dr. Dévora Kestel

“Issues surrounding mental health are still heavily stigmatized around the world – sometimes, people with mental health conditions are made to feel as if it is somehow their own fault,” she explained.

“Just as we should not be ashamed when we break a leg, we should not feel ashamed when we suffer from a mental health issue”.

And she highlighted the need to pay proper attention to mental health among all levels of society, including children and elderly people, where the focus may be more on their physical wellbeing.

“The key components in dealing with these groups are more about proper communication, which is essential to the wellbeing of both children and the elderly,” she said.

“The impact of mental health issues on elderly people during COVID-19 is expected to be higher than for other groups, because they are likely to be heavily affected by isolation as well as a cognitive decline. Some may not be fully aware of what is happening around them, and we are not entirely sure that all the information they need is being provided to them.

According to Dr. Kestel, the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated why mental healthcare budgets need to be increased globally. Photograph: Chinnapong/Shutterstock

“The World Health Organization has also developed guidance and advice for parents and healthcare providers on how to provide care for children during COVID-19, and how to enable them to face this crisis in the best way possible.”

Any kind of advocacy, locally and globally, is very important in fighting the stigma around mental health.

Dr. Dévora Kestel

Speaking about the role that WISH – Qatar Foundation’s global health initiative - is playing in offering platforms to tackle mental health-related issues, Dr. Kestel said that “Any kind of advocacy, locally and globally, is very important in fighting the stigma around mental health, raising awareness, and enabling people to understand the level of negative impact and the limitations that mental health issues can bring to their lives.”

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