WHO Executive Board stresses need for improved response to mental health impact of public health emergencies

The importance of integrating mental health into preparedness and response plans for public health emergencies was emphasized by WHO Member States at the WHO Executive Board meeting held in January 2021. Delegates expressed their strong support for the adoption of a Decision on this topic, proposed by Thailand, and co-sponsored by more than 40 Member States, at the 74th session of the World Health Assembly, due to meet in May 2021.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of integrating mental health into preparedness and response plans for public health emergencies,” said Dévora Kestel, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization, after the discussions had taken place. “The inclusion of this issue at the next session of the World Health Assembly is an important next step towards being better prepared to provide people with the support they need for their mental health during future public health emergencies.”

During the discussions, a number of specific requests were made of the WHO Director-General:

  • that technical support be provided to Member States for monitoring changes in and disruptions to mental health services;
  • that WHO assist Member States in promoting and expanding access to inclusive, integrated, evidence-based primary and community mental health services and psychosocial support, including during public health emergencies;
  • that WHO’s capacity in respect of work on mental health at global, regional and country levels be strengthened; and
  • that mental health be systematically integrated into all aspects of the work of the WHO Secretariat on universal health coverage.

The Executive Board also encouraged Member States:

  • to develop and strengthen, as appropriate, and as part of a whole-of-society approach, the timely and quality provision of the full range of mental health services and psychosocial support as an integral part of the health system; and
  • to allocate adequate funding for mental health, to mainstream knowledge of mental health among other health professionals, and to study the impact of COVID-19 on mental, neurological and substance use conditions and their consequences, sharing lessons learned with both the Secretariat and Member States.

Member States talked with concern of the particular impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescents, women (partly due to increases in domestic abuse and sexual assault), people living in humanitarian settings, and people with substance abuse issues. They also reported on the stigma, discrimination and human rights infringements that people infected with COVID-19, particularly frontline workers, had faced during the pandemic. They highlighted approaches that are they felt are key to addressing the rising demand for mental health support in their countries, including: community-based approaches that are both affordable and accessible; provision of support through telehealth and digital means; and training for health-care workers and other frontline personnel in psychosocial support.

Both the proposal relating to preparedness for and response to the mental health consequences of humanitarian emergencies and the updated implementation options and indicators for the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030 will be considered by the World Health Assembly in May.

Public Release. More on this here.