The COVID-19 pandemic is more than a threat to life and physical health. It also menaces mental well-being. Research indicates that the virus and the resulting grief, anxiety, and lockdowns have resulted in considerable psychological damage in a short space of time. Timely and astute mental health interventions in the GCC countries can prevent or alleviate the suffering that is now widespread. In the light of lessons learned during the crisis, governments also need a long-term strategy for robust mental health services.
A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than one third (36 per cent) of Americans feel that COVID-19 is seriously affecting their mental health, while most (59 per cent) feel that it is having a serious impact on their daily life. There is no reason to believe that the GCC region is any different.
Global mental health initiatives
Governments throughout the world, including in the GCC, have already launched initiatives to deal with the mental health dimension of COVID-19. These have mostly focused on providing immediate resources for support.
In India, for example, Maharashtra state now has a 24/7 mental health helpline through which people speak with mental health counsellors, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists. In the UAE, the National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing has introduced a series of programmes to help residents overcome mental challenges, including daily online live sessions with mental health professionals, awareness-raising videos by mental health experts, and virtual support groups to support community segments. China has implemented a psychological crisis intervention and the National Health Commission of China issued “Principles for Emergency Psychological Crisis Intervention for COVID-19 Pneumonia Epidemic.”
Similar timely and astute short-term mental health interventions in GCC countries can avert widespread suffering with potentially serious implications. In devising these interventions, it is important to differentiate the needs of three target groups among the population: people directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19; healthcare workers providing treatment at the front line; and the general population.
The direct and indirect victims of COVID-19 have suffered psychological effects. Those diagnosed with the virus have often been confined to the hospital, ill and alone. Healthcare providers can stop patient anxiety before it escalates by incorporating proactive counselling into treatment protocols. Meanwhile, bereavement counselling can ease the anguish of grief for family members who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Frontline healthcare workers are experiencing considerable stress. Hospitals should provide easy and confidential access to mental health services for their staff. For example, they can create helplines for one-on-one counselling when needed. Within the GCC region, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA) created the SEHA Employees Psychological Support Taskforce (SEPST) in the initial phase of the outbreak in anticipation of the pandemic’s adverse effects on frontline staff. SEPST organises weekly webinars in which experts guide the staff on stress management and mental wellbeing. SEHA has also launched a telephone helpline for staff to access in times of distress.
The general population has endured social isolation, while uncertainty about economic conditions and personal finances have created anxiety. Authorities should establish hotlines to receive distress calls. People should have access to mental health treatment through virtual and telephone consultations. Governments can also counter feelings of isolation through mental health awareness campaigns on social media, radio, and television.
GCC governments also need to go further than mobilising mental health resources to stabilise the current situation. They need to invest resources in building a robust mental health care strategy for the long-term. This should define the target model of care for mental health conditions, with the ultimate goal of prevention, removing the stigma around mental health problems, early detection, and effective treatment in the most appropriate setting.
Target models of care also need to include comprehensive mental health crisis plans. These are components of general revamped crisis management and emergency response strategies. A strong virtual and telemedicine component for mental health, drawing on invaluable experience gained during the crisis, would ensure seamless service.
The fundamentals also need to be in place. That means having a sufficient number of psychologists, psychiatrists, nursing staff, and social workers, together with insurance schemes providing appropriate coverage of mental health conditions.
The crisis has brought the issue of mental health further into the open and weakened the associated taboo. There is now a greater awareness of the vital importance of establishing a robust and resilient mental healthcare model which can react to all eventualities. Now is the time for governments to respond by strengthening mental health services for after the COVID-19 outbreak.