Amid all the challenges caused by COVID-19, mental health is often forgotten. But there is a way forward if we take a closer look.
It’s no secret that since a pandemic was declared on March 11, COVID-19 has challenged us. Across the globe, it’s stretched our health care infrastructure, our economies, and our education systems. But perhaps less apparent to world leaders is how it has affected our capacity to cope.
Everybody has tools they use to deal with the ups and downs of everyday life, called coping mechanisms. But for many who no longer have a daily routine, are separated from loved ones, or have lost their jobs, pre-pandemic coping mechanisms are not an option.
In a study recently published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, three times as many Americans met the criteria for clinical depression during the pandemic than before. Ethiopia also recently reported a threefold increase in depression and anxiety symptoms among its population since the pandemic began.
I am lucky that I can take advantage of mental health support through a therapist and meditation apps (several of which are now free for healthcare workers during the pandemic). But many historically marginalized groups, low-income folks, and people living in countries the UN has classified as least developed don’t enjoy the same access to mental health resources or may face stigma associated with seeking help for their mental health.
What’s giving me hope right now are nonprofit leaders in the GlobalGiving community that are adapting to expand mental health awareness and provide tools for those who need it most during the pandemic.
Glimpses of hope
In the United Kingdom, World Heart Beat Music Academy is helping low-income and refugee students find solace and connection through music. Each week, the organization’s leaders host virtual music-making, mentoring, and social sessions for 350 students, giving young musicians a break from the isolation of being at home and the challenges of virtual schooling. One student’s flute lessons became an escape:
“I’m not really scared anymore because the flute is helping me be calm and not be panicked. We also live in quite a small flat, so I don’t have many things to do.”
Another organization in Zimbabwe is dismantling the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health, which they cite as the main reason community members don’t seek help for their mental health. They are making strides through mobile community outreach events and are working to establish a toll-free teletherapy line. These leaders at the Society for Pre and Post Natal Services (SPANS) say, for people in their community, something as simple as clarifying the difference between “mental health” and “mental illness” can help lower barriers and reduce negative feelings about seeking help.
SPANS is also providing targeted support to women by highlighting maternal mental health through an annual conference and responding to the heightened demand for family therapy as a result of increased instances of gender-based violence.
How do we invest in mental health?
Despite the incredible work being done to normalize and improve mental health support, the statistics related to access are still staggering. Mental health typically accounts for only 2% of countries’ health budgets, although nearly 1 billion people worldwide suffer from mental illness. Mental health also gets overlooked in international aid, never making up more than 1% of all health development assistance.
It begs the question: Who is invested in mental health? And how can we support those who are doing the work?
I think back to the little girl who is keeping calm by playing her flute, thanks to music lessons from a local nonprofit. We must remember that these organizations were in their communities before the pandemic began and will be there long after it ends. If we want to see better mental health outcomes, we must invest in local, community-led efforts to bolster mental health access and acceptance. They’ve already proven their ability to respond and serve as a source of comfort and compassion when the unthinkable happens—an ongoing global pandemic. Let’s make sure they can continue shining their light.
Support community-led mental health initiatives around the world.
Featured Photo: BE THERE - support young people during coronavirus by World Heart Beat Music Academy