Loneliness caused by isolation and the post traumatic stress disorder of health workers are mental health conditions that must be addressed by nations, a World Government Summit report on the effect of the coronavirus said.
The Making Mental Wellbeing a National Priority: Actions to Build Resilience study, released on Monday, revealed the mental toll from the pandemic.
Elderly people faced months of isolation, families were prevented from attending funerals, while youngsters missed out on school and university.
The report, compiled in partnership with consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), estimated that poor mental health costs the global economy more than a trillion dollars a year in lost productivity.
It called on governments to invest in public health support by 2025 to mitigate the pandemic’s effects, saying authorities had a moral duty to intervene.
“The impact of Covid-19 has taken many forms on mental health around the world,” the report said.
“Health workers have fallen ill with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), elderly people were separated from their children, grandchildren felt lonely and depressed, and parents felt worried about losing their jobs while children lost their activities with their friends.
“Governments and policymakers are increasingly recognising that we should take serious steps into bringing solutions and tools to reduce the negative impact, and embrace community well-being.”
Solutions include a reduction in social media use, which is recognised as a source of mental health issues, particularly in young people.
The report praised a recent change in attitudes towards mental health in the Gulf region.
Regional improvements in mental healthcare
Although stigma remains, young people were more prepared to discuss related issues and ask for help.
The UAE’s National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing (NPHW) was held up by experts as an example of progress.
Saudi Arabia also increased mental, social and psychological health support to help citizens to deal with stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, including its dedicated telehealth service giving access to therapists.
Similar initiatives were introduced in Bahrain and elsewhere, as remote services become more accessible as technology improves.
“The global economy is conservatively losing a trillion US dollars in lost productivity each year due to mental ill-health. The pandemic has only accelerated this impact,” said Hamish Clark, chief wellness officer at PwC Middle East.
“We highlight key recommendations for governments on how to break the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace and build resilient societies.”
A recent study by Plumm, provider of a workplace mental well-being platform, highlighted the connection between mental and physical health.
Three main mental health factors were identified as having an intrinsic link to physical well-being: chronic stress, depression and burnout.
Prolonged chronic stress can manifest in physical symptoms of high blood pressure, clogging of the arteries and brain changes that lead to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and addiction.
“It’s important to address the root cause of problems and stresses to ensure you seek the right treatment and solutions before more serious consequences ensue,” said Caileen Lubbe, a research psychologist who works with Plumm.
“Even taking five minutes a day to take a break in the workplace and focus on being mindful or pausing for some meditation is great for mental and physical health.
“Setting goals can be fantastic to boost positivity and energy, both mentally and physically.”
Findings from the 2021 360° well-being study by global healthcare provider Cigna revealed a gap in mental health support in the UAE.
Research found 34 per cent of UAE employees claimed to have a lack of support, while 39 per cent said they wanted access to mental resilience training.
While health insurance is beginning to cover more mental healthcare, gaps remain.
Most insurers have an employee assistance programme where employers can pay about $30 (Dh110) a year for each employee to top up insurance to cover mental health.
Specialised coronavirus treatment in RAK — in pictures
Physical health linked to mental health
Physical effects of depression include headaches, fatigue, back pain, insomnia, heart disease and psychomotor activity changes.
Somatic symptoms (or those that are physical) can significantly affect a person’s longevity and quality of life, so access to effective treatment is essential.
“Physical ill health can have huge repercussions on our mental health, and I welcome this report for helping to raise awareness of this, especially after the challenges caused by the pandemic,” said Dr Mohanned Noor Elimam Abdallah, a specialist family physician at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Abu Dhabi.
“I would urge the public to be aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, chronic stress and depression in particular, all of which can lead to serious physical illnesses.
“It is extremely common for patients who are taking long-term medication for chronic health conditions to also suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“Early consultation with a psychiatrist or family [doctor] is important because it can make a big difference in the early management of these issues before they develop into serious health problems.”
The in-person World Government summit, meanwhile, was held at Expo 2020 Dubai in March in the week that the world's fair came to an end.
The summit drew leaders from around the world and important topics from food security to energy supply were discussed.